We have a number of PhD students at SOAS who are working on languages spoken in the Pacific, including the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. In addition to the usual hazards of fieldwork like biting animals, malaria and other tropical diseases, and the occasional tsunami our students now have another thing to watch out for: Australian immigration officials. All of them have to stop over in Australia on their way to the field and if the recent experiences of one student (I’ll call him “AB” for convenience, mindful of the fact that he has to go through Sydney on his way back to London) are anything to go by, the apparent fear and paranoia that is present on entry to Australia is yet another fieldwork hassle.
The student concerned is of Greek descent, born in Romania and officially registered with a Romanian name (as required by that country, which, along with a number of others, demands that minorities take names that conform to the style of the majority population). The circumstances of his birth led to a problem when he got to Sydney.
To quote from his email that I received from the Solomons soon after his arrival there:
I left London on Saturday 6th October and, after a 23-hour flight via Singapore, I arrived in Sydney the next day in the evening, local time. Here, a first unfortunate surprise, something quite impossible to predict and to be prepared for. The immigration officer was a Greek Australian and she decided that my name was not Greek enough for my Greek passport. So she called her superior and explained to her that I might represent a potential danger to Australia.
The reasoning was that, since my name was not Greek and I was born in Bucharest, I couldn’t possibly be a Greek, although I argued that I had my Greek citizenship by birth. I tried to explain that lots of Greeks had been born outside Greece, and the very immigration officer was an example (her name too was not Greek, but rather Italian), but she stubbornly insisted that one must be born in Greece in order to be a Greek citizen. This is the mentality they had 150 years ago, when the newly created Greek state was restricted to a sixth of today’s territory, and many Greeks were left on the outside. I thought that was history, but some people still think like that. They checked my passport over and over again and asked me a lot of stupid questions. During all this time I was guarded by a security officer, which made me feel like a prisoner.
They eventually came to the conclusion that my passport was not a fake but it still took me one hour to persuade them that I came in peace and that I was neither an Eastern European bandit nor an Iraqi terrorist (that is what the superior officer assumed, as she explained to me that many such outlaws can use Greek passports and have non-Greek names (!?)). They eventually let me in, but only after I showed them the recommendation letters that we had prepared for the Solomons and after I mentioned all the names of Australian academics that I could possibly remember. I was very tired and wasted my last resources in a stupid argument instead of going to bed early, and all because an idiot Greek officer happened to be there and she also happened to be as mean as the Greeks at home.
Fortunately AB made it out of Australia in one piece, and:
surprisingly, and contrary to what happened in Australia, I had no problem whatsoever when I landed in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. They simply let me in and gave me a one-month tourist visa for free. Nobody asked anything more than the usual why are you here?, nobody checked my luggage, nobody was suspicious about my name.
AB is now happily working on documenting a Solomons language, despite the friendly folks at Australian immigration.