Once Again: Fiumicino, the Gateway to Hell

[Week 55] I wouldn't be back here except for the fact that I live here.
[Week 55] I wouldn’t be back here except for the fact that I live here.
This is a story about Emirates flight EK 095 from Dubai International Airport (DXB) to Fiumicino Airport (FCO) on the 18th of August, the insanity that is Fiumicino’s immigration control and the love and care of the Italian Polizia di Stato.

It was barely two hours into our flight from Dubai to Rome when a plane-wide announcement was made— “is there a doctor on board?” Immediately, a number of doctors made themselves known to the cabin crew, and they were brought to a young Indian girl who was having trouble breathing. She looked extremely pale, but since we were mid-way through a six hour flight she was given oxygen and told to rest.

Upon landing at Fiumicino, our pilot made the request that everyone remain seated so the young girl and her family— about four adults and three very small children­— could disembark first. As I was one of the closest to the door, I got a bird’s eye view of the five Fiumicino medics escorting the poor blanket-wrapped girl out the plane, promptly followed by her obviously extremely concerned family. I can only imagine how difficult the plane ride was for all of them.

Once the family had safely disembarked, we are all allowed to go. It all seemed like a normal night until we hit the immigration wall. It was already late in evening, the majority of the people on the plane had flown from Australia (that’s the longest long-haul you can ever take to Europe), and we were faced by a veritable maelstrom of chaos. There was no queue, there was a solid block of immovable humanity. Only two ‘green lights’ were on, so unless you were an EU/EEA citizen you were stuck with the two immigration officials working that day— why, when this is peak tourist season? Since the majority of the flight from Dubai/Australia were certainly not EU/EEA, we were stuck. Then it quickly became clear that there were bigger problems.

We could see the family of the girl who became ill still standing around the edge of the queue. The girl was no longer there, I assume she was rushed to whatever medical facility Fiumicino offers. All the Emirates passengers knew who these people were, as we were the recipients of repeated announcements while in-flight, a good number of people present were the doctors that saw to the girl on board, and we all waited a good ten minutes on the tarmac for them to be the first ones off the plane. So imagine our surprise seeing them still there. Apparently, they were not being let through.

The above photo truly did not do the scene justice. It was chaos there, with ‘lines’ snaking around each other and uncivilized people squeezing through at random intervals. A pair of irritating men made it a game to see who could reach the front first, cutting the line repeatedly and laughing at each other. Again, there were only two immigration officials processing the hundreds of passengers at an international airport. All the while, the Indian family was there, desperately worrying about their daughter.

When the bulk of the Emirates flight arrived at immigration, the family was talking to the rightmost counter (the area of the blue rectangle in the photo), where diplomatic passports and cabin crew pass through. There was no queue there obviously— how many diplomats do you get in a day— and the immigration official was doing nothing, so theoretically the family should have been able to be processed there. After all, it wasn’t a normal situation, there were too many people in the regular queue and their daughter was now somewhere in the bowels of Fiumicino, alone and unable to breathe. However, the family couldn’t be understood. To quote, “They don’t speak English! They don’t understand what we’re saying!”

An Italian-Australian girl from our Emirates flight left the queue to try and translate for them. She explained to the Polizia di Stato that they were the family of the girl who was just taken through in a wheelchair, and that they wanted to find her. They had no idea where she was. However, this didn’t work either. They could only pass through the diplomatic window with the approval of the chief of police (the Italian girl was translating this and we could all hear her). The chief of police then exited the little room to the right followed by a handful of other immigration officials and listened to the girl translate the problem. The then said something unintelligible in Italian, and to quote the Italian girl, “He said he doesn’t give a shit.” The Indian family as well as all the Emirates passengers within earshot were obviously affronted by this callousness, none more so than the Italian girl and her friend, who were so angry by the lack of compassion that they loudly began condemning the situation and the police officials— to quote her once more “look at us, we are paid to stand around all day and do nothing”. She was very brave, to make those comments in front of the police— but then again, they didn’t speak English. The Italian girls could do nothing though, and they called the Indian family into our place in line so they wouldn’t have to go to the back.

Then the Emirates cabin crew arrived, led by the pilot. They all knew the family of course, the pilot himself came out when the medics arrived to ensure the comfort of the girl and her family. They were also shocked to see that they were still there. The entire cabin crew then stopped and talked to the now rather large crowd of police and immigration officials at the diplomatic window. Nothing. They adamantly refused to let the family through, saying that if everyone else has to queue, they have to too. To that I let out a rather loud scoff, excuse me but what queue?

Remember the three small children that were part of the sick girl’s family? Well, they didn’t much appreciate being in a crowd of people after such a long flight at an hour closer to midnight than it was when we landed. They began screaming. At this point, the whole crowd was watching the scene as there was literally nothing else for us to do. Perhaps realizing this, the chief of police then relented, and said one person can go through. The family had a discussion, and sent the father through with the youngest (and loudest) child. The rest of the family were escorted back to our queue by a very apologetic Emirates pilot and stewardess. Bless them, they did their best.

So there we all were. It took a good two hours and three phone calls to the boy before I got to the immigration window— and as if all the stressful situation outside wasn’t enough, the immigration official then held me there and wouldn’t let me through because of my Belgian visa. I tried to explain that the Belgian visa validity clearly began in October, and that my permesso di soggiorno clearly hadn’t expired yet (valid until October 31st), and that look I have a contract and everything but the man was fixated on the fact that I had a study visa for Belgium and was entering Italy on a student permesso. However, the people at the back of the line were calling out angrily at the hold up by then, and at that point the man stamped my passport and I was let through. God help me, it’s not as though I want to enter the country.

I lost the Indian family then, but I sincerely hope they found their daughter. The father who went through may not have had the best of luck since the kind Italian translators were left behind and I know for a fact Fiumicino has no one to help, but maybe just maybe he found his daughter. Hopefully the rest of the family found them too. And their luggage. Welcome to Rome, tourists! Enjoy your stay!

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2 comments

  • So interesting following your sojourn, Kate. We were in Rome in April last year and maybe it was because we didn’t have any checked luggage and made it through to immigration before everyone else did, or because our flight landed at 6 in the morning after a red-eye, but we encountered no issues coming into Fiumicino. I actually remember being really surprised because it didn’t seem like anyone cared very much about my visa and didn’t ask any questions. I now realize how fortunate we were, considering we flew on a red eye from Seattle to New York and another red eye from there to Rome… I would have killed someone if I went through an episode like this on so little sleep. =/

    • The Fiumicino gods blessed you! I’m starting to get PTSD symptoms whenever I fly into that airport. Traveling without checked luggage seems to be the best option here, I really need to learn how to travel light(er). Security wise, I just end up in the worst queues! Can’t even describe Amsterdam (September 2013), I was sent to the security room and they ran all sorts of scans on my passport and Italian visa. They both checked out, of course, but blargh.

      The Dutch guards were talking in French, and they were commenting on my immigration lady being ‘on her period’— extremely sexist, but apparently she had already sent a dozen people to security before me sooo who knows.

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