Letter of complaint for mask-exempt individual harassed by embassy officials

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Written by: Miri
May 21, 2021
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Dear Sirs,

I am writing to you to issue a formal complaint regarding a deeply harrowing and traumatic experience I endured in and outside of the [nation] Embassy in London on [date].

As a [home country] national living in London, I had an urgent appointment at the Embassy to renew my passport, which was about to expire. I attended this appointment in good time (arriving 15 minutes early), and had done all the necessary preparations in advance, including studying the Embassy's coronavirus guidelines.

These guidelines stated that nobody would be permitted entry to the Embassy without a face mask. I am medically and legally exempt from wearing a mask, and, under the law, such an exemption is universal - it applies in all environments equally and cannot be superseded by an individual organisation's internal policies.

The law makes it clear that the mask-exempt are not required to show any "proof" of their exemption, such as a doctors' note, notes which UK doctors have in any case stated they are not in a position to provide (1). However, for my own peace of mind, I chose to bring a certificate from a [home country] doctor, that he has made freely available online to anybody who is mask-exempt, for situations in which providing proof of exemption - despite this not being legally required - may enable a mask-exempt individual to more easily and less stressfully access the services they require.

When I arrived at the Embassy, a security guard greeted me at the entrance and enquired about my mask. I told him that I am exempt. Legally, this is all I should have been required to state (2), but nevertheless, the security guard asked me for a doctor's note.

I was sympathetic with the security guard's position, in that he had clearly received inadequate training in the law as it relates to disabilities discrimination, and in particular, the Equality Act 2010, which makes it an offence to ask individuals to disclose confidential aspects of their medical history that may relate to a hidden disability. Breaching this law can carry with it a personal fine of up to £5,000 and punitive damages of between £900 and £9,000 as per sections 112 (Aiding Contraventions) and section 119 (Remedies) of the Equality Act (3).

As it was the fault of the institution that employed him, rather than the security guard himself, that he was not conversant with this information, to make the process as expedient as possible for us both, I showed the security guard my medical exemption from the [home country] doctor.

He said he needed to take it inside to discuss it with colleagues.

Some time later, a man emerged from the building - whom I later learned was named [name] - with no less than three security guards; the original one I had encountered, and two more. I am not sure what about my presence they felt was so threatening it merited a three-strong security force to deal with, but needless to say, this made the environment seem acutely hostile and intimidating to a lone female. 

Gravely exacerbating this menacing atmosphere was the way Mr. [name] spoke to me. He was exceptionally derogatory and rude, to the extent I had to ask him to cease addressing me in such an aggressive and inappropriate way, and to speak normally. He disregarded my request.

He informed me he would not accept my doctor's note, since he had done an internet search for the doctor's name and "he is known for this" (e.g., providing mask exemptions). He then began interrogating me, asking me if I had met this doctor in person and when. I told him that this is not his business, and in any case, consultations with doctors can happen over the phone or online. I repeated that I am mask exempt and have a legal right to enter the Embassy without a mask.

Mr. [name] informed me I would not be permitted entry without a mask. Fearing that I would be put in this position, I had brought with me a crocheted mask that I had worn when I needed to take an urgent flight back to [home country] and the airline refused to let me board without a mask (again, illegally, but such was the urgent nature of my trip that I was forced to capitulate in order to take the flight, but it is an issue I am in the process of addressing legally).

I selected a crocheted mask because this allows me to breathe unimpeded, unlike conventional masks. Mr. [name] initially said this was not acceptable, but when I drew his attention to the fact I had some tissue within the mask, he allowed it. I informed Mr. [name] I was wearing the mask under duress and reserved the right to report him for coercion and actual bodily harm. He said, "okay, I will keep the doctor's certificate and report you for forgery of documents".

This was a ludicrous response; I had not forged any documents as Mr. [name] was very well aware, but I was by this point too distressed to argue further, so I said "okay, you do that" and went inside, followed by Mr. [name] and all three security guards.

Once I had entered, one of the security guards told me that my mask wasn't good enough as it kept slipping down under my nose, and I had to wear a different one. I refused, at which point he started loudly and aggressively barking questions at me relating to my mask, and demanding I answer with "yes" every time he ordered me to agree to hold my mask in place for the entirety of my time inside the Embassy, or, he told me repeatedly, I would be thrown out. 

This was, quite simply, a horrific experience. I was being treated like a criminal and a disease vector, rather than a law-abiding human being with a perfectly valid mask exemption. 

By this point, being extremely anxious, distressed, and disorientated, I dropped my documents all over the floor. I then had to endure the indignity of trying to retrieve them with one hand, whilst holding my mask in place with the other, afraid I would be thrown out of the Embassy and miss my urgent appointment to renew my passport, if I did not.

Mr. [name], who behaved throughout like a Gestapo-esque little dictator of the Embassy, was watching me closely for the entirety of my appointment.

Eventually, I managed to get my passport renewed and left.

I departed the Embassy thoroughly shaken, humiliated, and deeply distressed. What should have been a routine administrative appointment turned into a form of dystopian interrogation and persecution, which has not only left me with enduring feelings of distress and trauma, but is also actually illegal, as per the Equality Act 2010 in the UK, and international law as it pertains to disabilities discrimination and human rights.

I request as a matter of urgency a detailed response regarding what measures you propose to undertake to ensure no individual is subject to such discriminatory harassment or persecution on your premises again, and how you intend to compensate me for this deeply distressing episode.

Please note I am taking ongoing legal advice on this situation and expect a reply to this letter within 14 days of today's date. This letter is being sent by recorded delivery to [names and positions].

Yours sincerely,

[Name]

References:

1) https://www.burtondocs.co.uk/2020/07/21/face-mask-exemption-letters-no-gp-medical-letter-needed/

2) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own

3) https://www.laworfiction.com/2020/07/face-covering-for-6-to-12-months-from-24th-july/

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