Sikhs upset about airport security checks on turbans

London, UK - British Sikhs claim the government has broken promises on airport security.

They said the Department for Transport agreed that turbans would not be subject to manual checks introduced at airports across the European Union last year.

The EU checks were shelved by British airports after complaints from Sikh passengers and airport employees.

Sikhs have said the government has gone back on its word, and re-introduced them this month.

But the Department for Transport says it is working with the Sikh community and airports to address their concerns.

Manual searches

On 14 February several British airports including Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham introduced a trial with new security checks which include the controversial hand searches.

Harbhajan Singh is one of many Sikhs employed at Heathrow Airport who are now nervous about going into work following the re-introduction of the manual searches.

"When I passed the security point, the security man touched my turban," he said.

"I said, 'Don't touch my turban with your hands. You can search it without touching it with your hands.' He said, 'No there's a new government rule which means we have to.'"

Campaign group the Sikh Federation said Sikhs had no objections to searches of turbans. It is just the way it is being done that is a matter of concern.

"We carried out wide consultation back in June (and) July and the response from the community was to come up with anything as long as it doesn't mean actually physically touching our turbans," says Dabinderjit Singh, advisor to the Sikh Federation.

Religious symbol

The turban is a religious symbol for Sikhs. It is also a big part of their identity, explains Harbhajan Singh.

"When they touch our turban, we don't like it. It's like our crown. God only knows where their hands have been," he says.

Amrik Singh, a Sikh chaplain at Heathrow, said he had been getting lots of complaints about the checks.

"Everybody was led to believe that this turban touching system is going to stop altogether," he said.

"The government promised us that they would find alternative ways of solving this security problem, so that no one is offended."

Airport security was increased after the 9/11 attacks and other terror plots to blow up planes.

The EU ordered a further tightening of security procedures last year, including manual checks.

The Department for Transport and Sikh groups held a number of meetings to discuss the proposed measures.

The Sikh Federation said the two sides had reached agreement that manual searches of turbans would not be carried out. Sikh campaigners consented instead to the use of a swab which they say is more effective and less insulting.

"They take a swab, a small piece of cotton about one centimetre by one centimetre and they literally touch the turban with it and carry out a very quick chemical test. That is much better than a hand search which will not necessarily catch the chemicals that they are searching for," says Dabinderjit Singh.

'Permanent solution'

A statement released by the Department for Transport said: "In 2010, the European Commission introduced new regulations which require the manual searching of headgear at airports."

"Recognising the sensitivities which exist in certain communities, the Government has been holding a series of constructive discussions with faith representatives.

"As a result, both parties were able to agree to a trial - approved by the EC - which aims to maintain high levels of security while offering alternative screening methods for religious/cultural headgear.

"It is currently up to individual airports to decide whether or not they are able to participate in this trial, although we are pleased that many of the UK's major airports are taking part.

"We will be closely monitoring the outcomes of this trial as we continue working towards a permanent solution."

But that is little comfort to Sikhs who say even one hand check of a turban is one too many.