Last Wednesday, Petronia Reddy couldn’t print out her boarding pass online.
“It said something like you need to check in at the desk to vet your visa,” she said last Saturday, sitting at a Starbucks on Waterloo Road.
Reddy, a South African citizen but UK resident, was trying to fly from London to Dublin for a short holiday over the Jubilee weekend.
South African citizens don’t need a visa to travel to Ireland for short-term stays. But when Reddy tried to fetch her boarding pass at the front desk at the airport in London, a Ryanair staffer flipped through her passport and asked to see a visa.
Reddy told her she didn’t need one. “So she goes in the back and comes back with a piece of paper and says, ‘You need to complete this,’” said Reddy, putting her hands on the table.
But the questions were all in Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages – and one that Reddy doesn’t speak.
Media reports in recent days have highlighted how South African travellers to the UK have been asked by Ryanair to fill out these questionnaires to prove their passports are real. But South Africans travelling to Dublin say they have met with the same request.
Not only have they missed flights or not been allowed to fly at all, but the fact that the test is solely in Afrikaans – a language with a contentious history shaped by its association with the apartheid era – has forced South Africans of colour to revisit the traumas they lived under that racist system. “It’s triggering,” said Reddy, crying.
A spokesperson for Ryanair said airlines operating in the United Kingdom face a fine of up to £2,000 per passenger from its Home Office if they let someone with fake documents board a plane.
“This is why Ryanair must ensure that all passengers (especially South African citizens) travel on a valid SA passport/visa as required by UK Immigration,” the spokesperson said.
They didn’t say why they are asking Dublin-bound passengers to take the test though. They also did not explain why the test was only available in Afrikaans.
The Council of Europe has in the past raised concerns about how European airlines and their staff have had to take up border-control duties for which they are not trained or equipped, in order to avoid being fined. “Airlines are not immigration authorities”, the international organisation said.
Airline or Immigration Police?
People do get detained when arriving in Ireland and charged with travelling on fake passports.
This was the most common reason why people ended up in prison in Ireland on immigration-related charges during that period.
There have been reports in South African media about passport fraud in the country and the government’s efforts in tackling the problem.
In 2020, South Africa came third in the list of 10 countries whose citizens are most commonly refused leave to land at Dublin Airport.
Immigration officers can refuse leave to land on different grounds, including not having a valid passport or equivalent travel documents, said a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.
When someone with a fake passport is let on a plane and makes it to the destination border, under section 2 of the Immigration Act 2003, the airline that brought them can get hit with a fine.
This system of making the carrier liable is problematic, according to the Council of Europe’s former Commissioner for Human Rights, arguing that airlines shouldn’t play immigration police.
To limit access to the EU, member states impose sanctions on airlines, passing on weighty responsibilities to their untrained staff, the Council of Europe statement in 2010 said.
“Travel personnel, who cannot possibly have the appropriate competencies for ensuring the rights of refugees under international law, have been made to decide if someone should be allowed to board an airplane or ship – or not,” it says.
In particular, the council highlighted concerns for those who may have the right to claim asylum, but not the right travel documents.
Outsourcing to carriers the decision on whether somebody may be able to enter a country risks violating human rights and refugee laws, prohibiting the return of people to places they risk torture or their lives and freedom are threatened, the council said.
A little over 800 travellers who were refused leave to land at Dublin Airport in 2020 ended up seeking asylum, show Eurostat figures.
Stephen Kirwan, partner and solicitor at the law firm KOD Lyons, says airline staff who aren’t trained for it are being required to make immigration-law decisions to keep their employers from being fined.
And sometimes they get it wrong, Kirwan says. “There have been several cases of people unlawfully denied boarding, who had presented with a travel document, a refugee convention travel document from another European country.”
In practice, he said, airlines are shouldering some border-control duties, he says. “They’re basically passing border control to the likes of Ryanair,” Kirwan said.
There are good grounds for passengers forced to take the Afrikaans test to take Ryanair to court with discrimination claims.
“Even if this test is justified and I don’t think it is, but even if they provided it in all 11 languages, it’s still an interesting case,” he said.
When Reddy asked to take the test in English, she learned that it was only available in Afrikaans.
“If they’re doing an official form, they should have it in all of our 11 languages because we’re a very diverse country, given our past,” Reddy says.
“I said Afrikaans is not my first language, and she said something along the lines of, ‘Well, if you can’t complete it, that proves you’re not South African,’” said Reddy.
Dinesh Joseph, who was flying back to England from Lanzarote on 22 May, also asked a Ryanair staffer for an English version, he said last week on a Zoom call.
“And she looks at me and says, ‘No, that’s your language,’ and I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, we have 11 national languages in South Africa, and I choose to speak English,’” he said.
Zulu is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, followed by Xhosa, according to the country’s 2011 census figures. After those two came Afrikaans, spoken by nearly seven million people, trailed by English as the preferred language of about five million, the figures say.
Reddy used Google Translate to figure out the questions, she says. She’d studied Afrikaans in school many years ago, just enough to pass an exam.
She sweated over a question about the tallest mountain in South Africa though. You’d know the famous ones, she says, but who knows which one’s the tallest? She’d missed her flight to Dublin at that stage, Reddy says.
They told her she got some basic questions wrong and that they’d seen her Googling the answers.
“I said what I did do was using Google Translate because some of these words I don’t understand because I’m not Afrikaans-speaking,” Reddy said.
She then got emotional and told them it was all discrimination, she says. They finally let her get on a flight to Dublin.
Both Reddy and Joseph say what confused them the most was the airline staffers’ indifference toward their valid UK Biometric Residence Permits, which they say are much stronger proof that they’re holding genuine passports.
Kirwan, the solicitor, says if hit by discrimination claims in court, Ryanair has to come up with some compelling arguments to have them dismissed.
He said the airline would need to justify its decision behind the Afrikaans quiz before the Workplace Relations Commission under Ireland’s Equal Status Acts, and citing fears of carrier sanctions alone would most likely not be enough.
“They can say, ‘Oh carrier sanctions are a big economic punishment on us if we unlawfully let someone board, and we can’t tell the difference between a real and a fake South African passport,’” said Kirwan.
But the airline should also prove that it took fair measures to combat the problem, he says.
“The measure to combat it makes absolutely no sense, especially when you think that Afrikaans is one among many languages spoken in South Africa. Just because someone doesn’t speak it fluently that doesn’t make them less South African,” he says.
The Past Once More
Today’s Afrikaans evolved from the Dutch language, says a 2019 book by University of Maine professor Timothy Reagan, Linguistic Legitimacy and Social Justice.
During the apartheid era, the government decreed that all pupils had to learn Afrikaans. When thousands of schoolchildren came out to protest in the “Soweto uprising”, which began in June 1976, police killed dozens and wounded hundreds.
Reddy pulls up the Wikipedia page for the Soweto uprising on her phone, tears in her eyes.
“So much blood was spilt because these kids they were saying I’m a Black South African, I’m not Afrikaner, it’s not the language I speak at home,” she says.
Joseph, the man flying from Lanzarote to England, says Ryanair must apologise for the insensitivity and compensate them too.
“There was no apology, even just to say sorry for the inconvenience, I know this is delaying your flight but we’re having a huge problem with fraudulent passports,” said Joseph. “Be empathetic and have the right languages.”
As a person of colour, Joseph says, he’s not alien to episodes of “microaggression”, but this experience felt so outrightly discriminatory that it embarrassed him.
“Everybody’s looking at you, ‘Oh it’s the brown guy with a beard holding up the plane again,’ it’s that kind of feeling,” said Joseph.
Forced to speak Afrikaans, Joseph says, feels like a painful déjà vu.
“We have 11 national languages to give everyone a voice because the apartheid government used to silence other voices,” he said. “By using Afrikaans only they’ve taken away my voice.”
[UPDATE: This article was updated at 3.25pm to remove one of the people originally quoted.]