COURIER-MAIL: An Unwelcome Custom [Returning from Vietnam]

MORE than 13 million travellers a year pass through the hands of Australia's airport Customs officers. The officers' powers in some areas exceed those of police. MICHAEL WARE reports.

The hypersensitive wet nose of the sniffer dog dabbed every passenger from flight TG987 queueing at Brisbane's international airport Customs desk and moved on.

Until I made my mistake.

As the dog approached me, I gave him a short hello. The friendly canine leapt up and pressed his front paws against me. I gave him a scratch behind the ear and his minder led him off.

But the four-legged Customs employee was not so easily distracted.

No matter how much further along the line of passengers he went he kept straining on his leash to get back to me.

After the search was over he was rewarded by his handler with his customary soft toy and immediately raced down and dropped it at my feet.

This, I thought, was getting ridiculous. I had arrived at 11am tired and a little dishevelled and keen to see my waiting friends and family.

I had been backpacking through Vietnam and Cambodia for five weeks with a one-night stopover in Bangkok.

The Customs officers had marked me as a suspected drug smuggler.

By the time I had collected my bags from the carousel I had been "casually" approached by three members of what I presumed to be the Sierra Team -- a unit that operates at all Australian airports to interact with potential suspects.

In my case, all three times, it pretty much went like this: "Morning sir. Can I see your passport please? Where'd you go? Vietnam, eh? How was that? Any problems?"

No, it was good actually, thanks.

"Business or holiday? Bit of both huh? Whaddya do? Journalist, yeah? Did you find much while you were over there? No, oh well. Thank you sir."

In the baggage hall, the first of the Customs officers who had spoken to me ushered me by the elbow to a desk. I placed my bags on the bench and my ordeal began.

I was asked if I packed my bags myself (yes), was I aware of their contents (yes), did I leave them unattended at any time (no) and was I carrying any prohibited substances (no).

He then proceeded to go through every single thing in my bags. He studied my film canisters, he strangled my toothpaste.

Hw was soon joined by another officer. I dismantled my camera and surrendered my notebooks for inspection.

"So, do you have any drugs on you? Anything you want to tell us
about?" -- No, I do not have any drugs.

"Nothing you're trying to bring back?" -- No.

"No pot, eh? Nothing to smoke? But you tried some while you were over there?" -- No.

"Did you see any drugs? No? You must have. Well, how about narcotics. Are you carrying any narcotics?" -- No, I can guarantee it.

"You can, huh? Did you do any while you were there? Come on, you can tell me, I don't care what you did while you were there so long as you don't try to bring any back with you." -- No. I did not do any drugs.

"But did you do any narcotics while you were over there?" -- No.

"I'll take that as a yes," he said.

They told me the reason I was being searched was the dog had alerted them to the fact that I was carrying something.

They turned my bags inside out and pulled at every loose thread. They came up blank.

I was escorted to a room off to the side and I was informed of their plan for me. I was given a copy of the relevant provision of the Customs Act covering my rights.

Then the officers left and two new ones came in ... wearing surgical gloves.

I was instructed to strip, one item of clothing at a time in the order they dictated: shoes, belt, T-shirt, jeans and finally underpants.

After the ordeal, the senior officer returned and told me I was free to go. I quietly repacked my bags, trudged out to meet my waiting family and left the terminal as fast as I could.

My homecoming was one I know I will never forget.