Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1179, (9 - 15 January 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1179, (9 - 15 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Border problems

Customs officers sometimes receive negative media coverage, but they have an essential job to do in ensuring national security, as Mai Samih found out

Al-Ahram Weekly

Customs officers working at the Cairo International Airport often say they have chosen a job that brings more than they bargained for. According to Ahmed Hassan Abdel-Maguid, chairman of the central department of the Cairo Airport Customs Authority, the past three years have made the job anything but easy.

“We once caught a diplomat trying to smuggle a thousand mobile phones, and last summer we caught people trying to smuggle weapons and military uniforms. There have also been cases of medical instrument smuggling. The most dangerous cases happen during the seasons of the hajj [pilgrimage] and festivals. In one case, a passenger tried to smuggle materials from government institutions including universities and ministries. In another, a group of Indonesian nationals tried to smuggle 22kg of silver jewellery in fish they were carrying,” he said.

“There was also the case of a woman who had a baby’s bag full of wet towels, and upon inspection it turned out that they were soaked in heroine. In another case, there was a Nigerian group carrying heroine in medicine tablets.”

One of the differences between cases of smuggling detected in 2012 and 2013, Abdel-Maguid says, is that in the latter year there were more cases having security implications. “We had 193 cases of smuggling last year that were direct threats to the security of the nation. There were smuggled weapons and military uniforms. However, by working closely with the military and the police, we managed to frustrate many attempts at such smuggling,” he adds, saying that there was even one case in which instruments used to spy on the police were found.

Ibrahim Abdel-Latif, customs manager at Cairo Airport and the airport’s spokesman, explained how the customs department works. “The customs authorities in any country are the frontline of defence against economic, social and political threats,” he said. Among these threats are those coming from the smuggling of products that may be illegal or unfit for human use, while others may come from criminal activities that threaten general security.

“Legislation on customs is broadly the same worldwide,” Abdel-Latif said. “It aims to lay down regulations at the borders of each nation, as well as customs areas and legal paths of entry and exit. International treaties form a network of agreements between countries that enable the customs authorities to work together to enforce the law in various countries.”

In order to make their daily tasks easier, customs officers have been given certain powers, as determined by the law. These include the right of judicial seizure and the right to search people, means of transport and cargo in the customs area. This means that customs officers are allowed to enter ships and airplanes carrying cargo, inquire about their documents, and proceed according to the law. “Customs officers have the right to confiscate any smuggled products they find,” Abdel-Latif said, adding that this right is common to customs authorities worldwide.

Abu Bakr Al-Seddik, head of the airport’s passenger inspection department, explains how his department functions. “A passenger descends from a plane and then goes to the passport department, gets his entry stamp stamped on his passport, and goes down to the luggage carousel to get his luggage. After that, he goes to the customs department, which has two halls, a green hall for those carrying only what is allowed, and a red hall, for example for luggage that contains materials exceeding established regulations. The passenger then sees a customs officer who will inspect his documents.”

The officer inspects passports carefully, as some passengers may be wanted by the police, for example. “The type of passport and the name of the country also tell him a lot,” Abdel-Latif said. There is sometimes a relationship between the country of a passport and the type of products smuggled, and some countries produce relatively few smugglers, possibly because of higher levels of economic development. “We apprehend very few Japanese smugglers, for example,” Abdel-Latif added. “But countries where there are internal conflicts or where there are high rates of poverty tend to produce higher numbers of smugglers. An Egyptian customs officer uses his instincts when reading a passenger’s papers to detect cases of smuggling, and this is done everywhere in the world.”

Once a passport has been read, a passenger will be asked what he is carrying with him and whether he has anything to declare. The information in a passenger’s papers is compared with the type and quantity of his luggage. The customs officer will ask himself whether the amount of luggage is consistent with the period of time a passenger has been abroad and whether it is consistent with his stated purposes in Egypt. He will also look at the passenger’s reactions.

“There are instances when a passenger lies about what he has with him and his facial reactions give him away,” Abdel-Latif said. If a passenger is found to be hiding something in his bags, he is referred to the inspections department where additional fees may be applied, assuming that whatever the passenger is carrying is not illegal. The whole process usually takes place in a matter of minutes.

Hoda Salama, head of the deposit department at the airport, explains the function of the department she works in. “We offer passengers with extra goods the opportunity to pay fees, and if they do so no charges are pressed. However, obviously this is not the case if the materials are illegal or if a passenger is not aware of what he is carrying. Materials intended for institutions like churches, mosques, or orphanages are passed on to the parties concerned if their documents are in order. In cases of medical goods or medicine, we refer cases to the Ministry of Health. There is a branch of the ministry at the airport, and we abide by their instructions. If weapons are found, we ask to see licenses and other necessary documents and consult the interior ministry for instructions.”

Salama adds that each ministry has its own special office that will issue customs instructions. The Ministry of Agriculture has an office at the airport, for example, and this will inspect and give instructions regarding imported agricultural goods. “It is up to the ministries concerned to decide whether they will release products or not, though a customs officer will deal with the necessary administration,” Salama said.

Sami Abdel-Rahman, head of the coordination department at the Cairo Airport Customs, said that in his department “an officer works under the umbrella of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and with governmental institutions like Military Intelligence, national security, and the general intelligence agency. These are all represented by offices at the airport, and they exchange information to ease the work.”

“We have periodical meetings and what is called a department for crisis management to improve the service for passengers. All employees’ training is updated on a daily basis in various fields, including languages and the techniques used to detect smuggling, and we work closely with international institutions in the field. We exchange expertise by sending employees abroad and vice versa,” Abdel-Rahman said. 

The role of his department is to coordinate with these parties, as well as to carry out training. “There are two types of training; national and international. On the national level, there are specialised courses that are carried out by the Institute of Customs Training in Cairo and Alexandria, and these train officers not only in Egypt but also in African and other Middle Eastern countries. They provide officers with basic information and cooperate with the relevant ministries that train them in specialised skills. On the international level, there are courses held in association with international organisations to international standards, and there is also the chance to exchange expertise between countries through international workshops.”

A customs officer has to have certain competencies, among them the ability to work well in a team. “We work with all the ministries in the country,” comments Abdel-Latif. “We are the window through which people and goods enter the country. All the ministries issue reports or booklets that we abide by, stating what is forbidden from crossing the borders.”

“A customs official must be clever, patient and well read,” adds Abdel-Rahman. “He must know what is going on in the country and around the world. He must behave like a judge. He must be both honest and fair.”    

In 2010, a syndicate for those working in customs was established by a decree of the Ministry of Labour and the General Federation of Egyptian Labour Syndicates. In the same year, the then minister of aviation, Ahmed Shafik, called for the latest machines to detect illicit materials to be installed in Egyptian airports. In 2012, the Customs Authority, then headed by Ahmed Farag, established the first anti-money laundering department to work with the Central Bank. In March 2013, the authority carried out amendments to the customs tariffs on 189 products.

In the same year, main problems encountered included the lack of staff and the old computers used by officials and the lack of maintenance on IT equipment. An agreement was signed between the Customs Authority and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to supply the authority with the technical support needed to improve the equipment used by the customs. “Some of the x-ray machines need maintenance and we plan to update them across the country,” commented Abdel-Latif.

“Those working in the customs, especially officers, should be treated well given the efforts they make in combating smuggling and organised crime. They are the frontline for the defence of national security, and they should be recognised as such,” Salama said. “The number of customs officers needs to be increased so they can do their jobs more effectively. In addition, there is a need for better transport facilities, and, just like in any other ministry where officers commute on a daily basis, most problems tend to occur during the process of changing shifts,” Hassan commented.

According to Abdel-Latif, passengers should also bear certain points in mind when in customs areas. The customs officers work according to national and international law to ensure security in the country. National laws are changed according to developments in the international community and in order to ensure better service and to maintain a balanced cooperation with other nations.

According to Law 66/1963 and its amendments and Law 95/2005, a customs officer is allowed to search people and goods without permission from a court in order to enable him to work efficiently. Officers also have the right to inspect cargoes suspected of including smuggled goods even outside the customs area. They have the right to search convoys coming through the desert, especially in border areas, if they suspect a case of smuggling could be in the offing with the support of the authorities.

A customs officer has the right to search the luggage of any passenger he suspects to be involved in smuggling and to call him back to the search area. An officer can inspect a passenger’s mouth for smuggled objects, but a doctor has to be present for searches elsewhere in the body. No customs officer can be sued without written permission from the minister of finance.

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