Christchurch Muslim sisters horrified by detention at Brisbane airport

Nada Tawfeek, left, with father Sherif and sister Hannah,
Supplied

Nada Tawfeek, left, with father Sherif and sister Hannah,

Two Christchurch Muslim sisters are furious at being held for two hours and treated like "a potential threat" at Brisbane Airport while on their way to see their father win a medical award. 

Nada Tawfeek, a 21-year-old Canterbury University student, and her sister Hannah, 18, were pulled aside at the Australian terminal by a security guard asking "a bunch of intimidating, intrusive questions", then later detained in a room for two hours - even during a fire alarm evacuation.

The women - who were wearing headscarves - were told it was a "random selection", but Tawfeek believes it was religious profiling.

"You feel really intimidated. Like you've done something wrong, but you haven't."

"They were ambushing us really."

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said the Commission continued to work alongside and support Muslim New Zealanders who "often faced the brunt of actions taking place thousands of miles away".

She was "disappointed" the Tawfeeks felt they were unfairly targeted. 

"Balancing security with people's human rights and dignity is a challenge faced by all governments, including ours."

Tawfeek is Egyptian-born, and raised in England until her family came to Christchurch five years ago. 

She and her sister were invited to Brisbane to attend a ceremony where their father, Christchurch gynaecologist Sherif Tawfeek, was to receive a fellowship at the weekend.

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To be considered a "potential threat" after being invited there was "beyond me".

"It should be a human right to be treated as completely innocent until proven otherwise."

Otherwise it would "become a society of mistrust".

"I have absolutely nothing to hide."

She was clearly upset, but there was no apology just a "thank you for your time".

"I thought, don't thank me for something I didn't give. I didn't give you it, you just sort of forced me."

During their interrogation, a fire alarm was set off in the building and passengers told to leave their belonging and evacuate immediately.

"We were told to get our bags and stay in the building while they checked whether or not we posed a threat."

It was "disgusting", she said.

"Their priority should be to make us feel safe and protected.

"I was being difficult because I was being treated as some sort of criminal and she said 'well basically I dont know you, so I have to be sure you don't pose a threat to our country'.

Tawfeek then discovered a male security guard was inspecting her personal photos and videos without permission.

The phone was handed to a female guard once Tawfeek explained Muslim custom meant men could not see photos of her without her headscarf on.

"She takes my phone to a back room for about two hours. Going through every message, every photo, every video, every email."

Tawfeek felt she could not complain about what was law.

An Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) spokeswoman said there were no records of the incident.

She said the service's role was to manage and protect "the security of our borders by identifying possible travellers of interest".

It "would not be appropriate" to detail rules around who it considered a threat, she said.

It had powers under the Customs Act to search, question, examine and seize goods at the border, including "in certain circumstances" mobile phones and other personal electronic devices.

"In all cases, ACBPS officers treat people with dignity and respect," she said.

Tawfeek could not think what "certain circumstances" existed to allow them to breach her privacy, and she looked forward to getting home to New Zealand.

They had a "smooth and chilled" return landing at Christchurch Airport early on Tuesday morning.

 - Stuff

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