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Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Racial Profiling at Schiphol Airport

In 2002 there was a 60% increase in drug trafficking through Schiphol Airport in The Netherlands resulting in stricter procedures, dubbed the one-hundred percent controls, which were used to check passengers for drug smuggling. One Surinamese woman claimed that the severity of the one-hundred percent control resulted in the miscarriage of her baby.  As part of the control, the woman was strip searched several times, had a vaginal and anal inspection, and during a body scan for drug pellets, her stomach was forcibly pushed to adjust to the dimensions of the machine. According to the lawyer Hans Gaasbeek, who represented the Surinamese woman (among many others who have had negative experiences with the controls), “It is my impression that people of color suffer more…  But it’s hard to prove that racial discrimination is a factor.”  

The problem of racial profiling in these one-hundred percent controls is part of a larger problem in Amsterdam: a silence around racism.  Although Amsterdam is known for its diversity, and for being a tourist-friendly city (touting the slogan “I Amsterdam”) it is increasingly apparent that the people of Amsterdam celebrate diversity without contending with—much less facilitating dialogue about—racism in present day society.  On the surface, Amsterdam appears to be a cohesive, multicultural society.  In reality, however, there are strong racial tensions between different ethnic groups that are not acknowledged or discussed openly.  This is particularly evident in the way many people in Holland pride themselves in being part of a culture of tolerance, rather than a culture of acceptance.  This raises significant questions: What are the reasons for this lack of dialogue on racism? Due to this lack of acknowledgement of personal prejudices maintained by this silence, does racial profiling play a role in the one-hundred percent controls? How can we perceive if race actually does have an impact on the controls?  Moreover, have airport security checks gone too far, having implicated many innocent people by subjugating them to bodily inspections in search for drug smuggling materials? 

Introduction of One-hundred Percent Controls

The one-hundred percent control consists of several components that all passengers and staff from incoming flights from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles undergo. Other flights from countries like Aruba and Curaçao receive these checks as well. First, the checks may begin with dogs that sniff passengers for drugs as they exit the plane and indicating suspect passengers by sitting nearby them. The luggage that is unloaded from the flight cabin is also sniffed by dogs to find any drugs that may be concealed in a passenger’s checked luggage.  Fred Teeven, a member of the liberal party in the Dutch parliament and a former customs agent stated “although passengers don’t see the dogs sniffing their luggage, it happens.” 

Second, the customs officers briefly interview the passenger. Third, their hand luggage is x-rayed and they receive a pat-down. If the customs agent suspects that an individual is smuggling drugs under their clothes or has swallowed drug pellets, the passenger is strip searched and can be subjected to anal and vaginal inspections. Further, if customs agents find drugs on the individual, the passengers are turned over to the military police and sent to the Schiphol detention center. Even during the flight, attendants are trained to look for other signs of drug smuggling, such as not consuming any food or drink throughout the flight, among other precautions taken by drug smugglers to prevent themselves from digesting the drug pellets they swallowed.     

Slavery and Inhumane Treatment: Linking Past to Present 

One of the major complaints with the one-hundred percent controls process concerns the drug sniffing dogs. Glen Willemsen is the director of the National Dutch Institute for the History of Slavery and Heritage, an organization that seeks to promote awareness of the Dutch slavery past and its present day impacts. According to Director Willemsen,  “As the passengers exit the plane in the middle of the morning, they enter a tunnel with ten or twelve people holding dogs that are sniffing them as they walk into the airport. That is the welcome they get.”  Furthermore Willemsen points out: “people from Latin America don’t relate to dogs the same way as people in Holland. It’s a cultural difference: people from Suriname and the Antilles do not perceive dogs as friends or companions, therefore using dogs is a violation of norms, and it’s a form of disrespect ... while the whites see using dogs as a technique to look for drugs, people from Suriname and the Antilles see it negatively.” Willemsen even tied the searches to The Netherlands’ slave past, noting “that slaves were treated badly by dogs; in fact they were chased and caught by dogs when they ran away from the plantation.”  Ultimately, Willemsen calls the usage of the dogs a form of “cultural racism” that acts in addition to the largely unacknowledged phenotypical racism of passengers who are racially profiled as possible drug smugglers.   

Security Checks as an Inhumane Treatment 

In December 2003, the court ruled that the one-hundred percent controls were invasive of individuals’ bodily privacy.  Nonetheless, the one-hundred percent controls still exist at Schiphol airport, and are still used on suspected passengers, albeit less frequently.  Also in 2006, The National Ombudsman released a research report investigating the grievances of the passengers who were searched. Some of these grievances included that the security checks take long periods of time and complaints about the invasive anal and vaginal inspections. Further, those suspected of smuggling are assumed to be guilty, reported to have been mistreated in the detention center and did not receive information about the procedure until January 1, 2006. 

The Ombudsman’s research found that from January 2004 till April 2006 there were 6550 passengers held up by customs because they were suspected of smuggling drugs.  Of those pulled aside, 2176 were innocent.  Additionally, Marten Dijkstra, the manager of border control & customs and immigration relations at Schiphol airport, stated that before the one-hundred percent checks a typical Boeing 737 would hold fifty drug smugglers of the 500 people in the plane.  After the one-hundred percent checks were put in place however, only two to three of the five hundred people on the plane were drug smugglers, proving the efficiency of the stricter regulations in reducing the amount of drug trafficking through the airport.             

In contrast, Parliamentary member Fred Teeven said “I have no problems with one-hundred percent checks because it’s not related to origin but it’s related to where you come from.” To the contrary of Teeven’s theory, Willemsen stated “The checks are not tied to nationality, they are tied to skin color.  The majority of people flying from Suriname are Surinamese with a Dutch Passport.”  Corresponding to Willemsen’s claim, at Schiphol Airport we noticed that the minority of black passengers from the plane from Curaçao were being interviewed more intensely than the white passengers.  In fact, four of the five people pulled aside for screening as part of the one-hundred percent controls were black males and a large number of the people patted down were black females.  Therefore, we agree with Willemsen’s claim that it is not entirely accurate to say that the one-hundred percent controls are not related to race.  Even if the majority of the passengers flying from the Dutch Antilles and Suriname are not from Holland, their nationality is still closely tied to the passenger’s racial and ethnic background. In short, by targeting these nationalities the Airport customs are implicitly targeting racial minority groups.  The rationale behind the argument that the controls target nationality instead of race seems to be a cover for institutionalized racism. When flying from Suriname, Willemsen confessed that he has a “tactic” to get through interviews “I tell the customs officer that I was researching slavery and racism ... they are afraid that someone is going to accuse them of racism so they let me pass.”       

The suspected passengers are sent to a lower level of the terminal where there are additional tables for the subjects to be interrogated several times, booths where they can be strip searched and internally searched for drugs, a baggage inspection area, waiting rooms, and an x-ray machine that scans people for drugs.  

As previously described, between the transportation of the baggage from storage of the plane to baggage claim, the luggage is sniffed by dogs and x-rayed.  If luggage is found to be suspicious, then the person who claims the bag is pulled aside, to the lower level of the terminal just described.  Although the cavity checks are less common because of new hands-free x-ray machines that scan the body for drug pellets, if a suspected person is searched, it is by a customs agent of corresponding sex.  

In our observations at the airport, it appeared that the large majority of customs agents were predominantly white, and as a result of the ombudsman’s report these agents are now required to undergo some sort of diversity training.  Yet, as Glen Kodfreid, founder of Stop the Humiliation at Schiphol Airport stated, complaints of discrimination and mistreatment in the airport from the Surinamese and the Antillean communities still exist, suggesting that the diversity training is not effective enough. Stop the Humiliation speaks out against the racial profiling of minorities in these airport security checks through protests and petitions directed at government officials.      

Presumption of Innocence

According to a press release by the Department of Justice, “The X-ray machine is to provide passengers selected for a more thorough check with the opportunity to prove their innocence.”   The notion of proving oneself to be innocent contrasts the individual right to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty which appears in a number of documents including the United States Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Council of Europe. This particular right acknowledges that the defendant has the right to an official court hearing in which an official verdict, proving their guilt or innocence, can be reached in a court of law.  Therefore, criminalizing people by forcing them to undergo various aspects of the controls like intense interrogation and cavity checks is a violation of an individual’s rights since they are presumed to be guilty.  

In the case of the airport controls, many passengers suspected of body packing have been subjected to cavity searches, x-ray examinations, interrogations, and pat-downs that a number of people have described as “humiliating.”  Correspondingly, Surinamese and Antillean minorities that undergo these intense searches and believe that they have been targets of racial profiling and that their physical integrity has been violated, feel as if they are being treated like a guilty criminal.

Although the procedure for the one-hundred percent checks seems acceptable overall, the way in which the customs officers can use their personal judgment to identify suspicious passengers is too easily open to subjectivity. Using their intuition to deem a passenger suspicious leaves room for the customs agents’ individual prejudices to play a role, particularly in the stereotyping of black people from Suriname and the Antilles as drug smugglers.  This represents a form of informal racial profiling which is not necessarily derived from the individual customs officers training; rather it stems from their personal prejudices and beliefs. The National Ombudsman’s report found that one in every three people who undergo the controls at Schiphol is innocent, when in reality the national rate is one in 500.  “I don’t agree with the way the customs officers can suspect someone based on intuition—the rate of innocent people who are deemed as suspicious at Schiphol is unacceptable for me as a lawyer,” says Hans Gaasbeek, who represents a number of passengers who have gone to court after having experiencing the one-hundred percent controls.  Many passengers of color voice a frustration about the checks since they are treated like criminals, starting with the preliminary interviews. By asking them invasive questions that seem to imply that they were guilty, each step of the control process is a source of stress and skepticism for racial minorities exacerbating racial tensions between the passengers and the airport authorities. Glen Kodfreid of Stop the Humiliation at Schiphol acknowledged this, saying “When one-hundred percent controls started I said I don’t think it’s a good idea ... I don’t trust it.”  

The discontentment around the one-hundred percent checks leads to the question: why is there not a larger and stronger resistance to the controls?  One possible reason for the lack of an influential resistance movement against the checks is a ‘slave mentality’ that causes people of color to hesitate to act out against the injustices they experience.  Slave mentality is derived from the master-slave relationship in which the slave was dehumanized and taught to think of themselves as lesser to their oppressor.  Many people of color have this slave mentality unconsciously, failing to realize how it affects their daily actions.  Today, this slave mentality could play a role in minorities’ reaction to the controls. The watershed moment in improving the security checks at Schiphol was the release of the ombudsman’s report—not the petitions and protests on behalf of members of Stop the Humiliations, a group composed mainly of minorities. Another possible reason is that people who have no contentions with the checks and see them as a necessary procedure to prevent drug smuggling.  Those who are not faced with this problem fail to contribute to the movement as bystanders who failing to speak out against the biased checks.  “Racism is so ingrained in Dutch culture we don’t see it anymore ... many people in Holland think there is discrimination, or incidences of racist acts, but that there is no racism,” says Willemsen. Throughout The Netherlands the ideology of tolerance is crucial in dealing with diversity. Yet the notion of tolerance in itself is problematic because it suggests that minority groups should be tolerated rather than accepted as Dutch citizens. Consequently, the word tolerance carries two meanings. First, tolerance signifies the separatism and segregation within Dutch society.  Second, tolerance describes the way in which minorities deal with the racism and discrimination they encounter: they tolerate it.         


The lack of much needed dialogue and openness on racism as well as the promotion of a culture of tolerance causes a number of white Dutch people to be afraid of being considered racist; and a number of Dutch minorities to hesitate to talk about the racism and discrimination they have faced.  As a result of this silence around race relations, the controls satisfy the needs of the airport to crack down on drug smuggling while leaving many minorities dissatisfied with the process. This also makes it increasingly difficult for discriminatory customs agents to realize their personal prejudices. Consequently, because customs agents do not have a malicious intent when they discriminate against minority passengers, it becomes increasingly difficult to get others to acknowledge and address the racial profiling that goes on at Schiphol. For instance, when asked why black people were clearly interviewed more intensely during our time at the airport, Manager at Schiphol Marten Dijkstra nonchalantly replied: “That’s obvious, because the majority of people from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles are black, so black people are the ones smuggling the drugs.”  

Altogether, while we acknowledge that it is necessary to search for drug smugglers, we do not approve the current state of one-hundred percent controls due to the largely unacknowledged racial profiling inherent in the process.  The current controls implicate too many innocent passengers by searching for people who fulfill the racial profiling criterion, rather than solely searching for drug smugglers according to symptoms of drug smuggling, known as bolletjes criteria. Additionally, it is not acceptable that anal and vaginal checks are still used at the discretion of the customs agents even after the body scanning machines have been installed in the terminals. The cavity inspections are not acceptable because they violate the physical integrity of the passenger being searched. Whether the suspect is guilty or not, such a violation of privacy is humiliating and degrading.  Though the machines appear to be an alternative to these bodily inspections, it is crucial to recognize that there are conflicting opinions of whether the radiation used in these scans is entirely safe.  Therefore it seems that there is currently is no clear and efficient alternative to finding out if a suspected passenger has swallowed drug pellets.  

Nevertheless, a way of improving controls process could include moving the entire procedure to the place of departure, where people who are more familiar with the ethnic and cultural background can be hired to carry out the controls.  Accordingly, the customs officials would be less likely to use culturally discriminatory measures like using dogs to search the passengers. Further, having the process in the departure locations makes tackling the issue of drug smuggling a mutual effort between the Schiphol, as well as the Surinamese and the Dutch Antillean Airports. Also the prevalence of racial profiling may be reduced through this collaboration between the Dutch and the Surinamese and the Dutch Antillean countries.  Ultimately, the fundamental changes needed to improve the controls lie not only in finding a more clear alternative to searching for drug pellets, but also in the need to train airport officials to be more objective in defining their suspicions.  Perhaps this can only come about by engaging an ongoing, critical dialogue on the role of racial profiling and personal prejudices in the controls in order to have more nuanced understanding of race and racism. This long overdue conversation on race should initiate a progress towards ensuring that those that those selected to undergo the controls are indeed presumed to be innocent unless proven guilty. 



LJN: BA7763, Gerechtshof Amsterdam, K06/1444 [Court decision]






Glen Willemsen – Executive Director of NiNsee (National Institute For The Study Of Dutch Slavery And It’s Legacy

Glen Kodfried – Founder of the organization Stop The Humiliation At Schiphol Airport

Hans Gaasbeek – Lawyer (Criminal Law)

Fred Teeven – Member of the Dutch Parliament for the Liberals (VvD)

Marten Dijkstra – Manager Border Control & Customs And Immigrations Relations

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2007


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