Uncovering Passport Privilege

Illustration: Rachel Cripps

“Did I take my passport?” is a phrase that I always anxiously whisper to myself multiple times as I travel between St Andrews and my home country or whenever I embark on a trip overseas. As my main form of identification, my passport is undoubtedly one of my most prized possessions — something I consider symbolically as an extension of myself. Therefore, sometimes I wonder, how did such a small book come to hold so much meaning in our lives?

The first travel documents long predate the modern nation-state, even though they existed in more humble forms, such as a written declaration. The passport as we know it only appeared in the early 20th century and evolved from a folded single page to feats of modern technology with microchips and holograms.

Although all countries now issue passports, not all passports are equal: to some, they mean freedom as they open doors to travel the world, but to many others, they mean oppression, as they can also be a barrier to movement. Some people do not have a passport at all, whether they do not have the need for one, are unable to get one, or have no rights in terms of holding one, such as refugees.

The Passport Power Index is a ranking that sorts, displays and ranks the passports of the world by the power they give the bearer to travel across borders. Rankings are based on the number of countries that can be entered either visa-free or with visas-on-arrival. For countries ranked high in the index, mostly comprised of European, North American, and wealthy East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea or Singapore, travelling overseas is for the most part relatively easy.

Money aside, for citizens of one of these countries, the most pressing concern for travelling usually stops at booking a ticket and arranging accommodation. However, most people in the world do not enjoy such privileges, as visa restrictions can make travelling uncertain and, in some cases, impossible.

Dr Mattia Fumanti is a Social Anthropology professor at the University of St Andrews who teaches an honours-level module on migration in which he discusses how people’s experiences of moving across borders are dictated by citizenship rights or lack thereof. I sat down with him to discuss passport privilege, which he defines in the following terms: “Passport privilege is the ability to travel the world without restrictions, and having privilege attached to your passport reflects a position in the world as mostly European or North American, mostly white, and mostly middle-class.” Furthermore, he notes that “passport privilege is tied into the long history of structural inequality between Western countries and the rest of the world, and the ways in which these countries’ colonial history allows them to go where they want for the duration they choose.” However, he paints a stark contrast for the opposite journey, whether it’s South to North, or East to West, for which travel difficulties are commonplace.

Moreover, the obstacles to travelling have taken different forms over time. In the past, Fumanti notes, “travelling for leisure used to be the privilege of the upper class, and more specifically, the aristocracy.” Decades later, as technological progress made mass transportation more efficient, travelling became much more affordable, but not for everyone. While Western countries are now able to provide their citizens with affordable travel, in countries with considerably lower median incomes, travelling is ultimately a matter of wealth.

On the other hand, new obstacles emerged. “Now, travelling is tied in with very restrictive immigration policies”, Fumanti pointed out. For example, obtaining an authorisation to travel from many countries in Africa to Europe requires jumping through a lot of hurdles, going through a lengthy process, and providing specific documentation such as proof of income and detailed travel plans.“In many conferences that I attended, speakers coming from Africa often had their visa refused, no matter how much proof they provided and despite them holding distinguished positions at their local universities,” he said. Hearing this, I can’t help but feel revolted at these injustices which seemingly cannot even let people travel in order to do their own job.

Although mass migration was undoubtedly a significant factor in more restrictive travel policies, geopolitics also play a major role. Governments can fuel outside perceptions of their own country, just like they can help form opinions on other countries.

Additionally, the citizens of one country can suffer the consequences of travel restrictions to another country just because the two governments are at odds with each other or are experiencing tense relations, even if the citizens themselves are not to blame. Therefore, the number of countries a passport grants someone entry to often reflects how many “friends” their government has.

“Just pack your bags and go!”, “Travel is all about the mindset!”, “You don’t need that much money to travel!”, “Fear is the only thing holding you back from exploring the world!”: such statements are often heard in the travel community, or from people who have the privilege to travel relatively easily around the world, in order to encourage others to do the same. Although these statements can be well-intentioned, it is inherently insensitive to assume that, independently of money, everyone can just “pack their bags and go”.

In fact, most people who possess a “strong” passport are unaware of their privilege. “When reading travel blogs or websites, it is often emphasised that travel is a mindset, which obscures the fact that in order to travel, you need a passport that allows you to cross most borders,” said Fumanti. “People take for granted where they come from and what it allows them to do. You don’t hear a lot of critical voices from people who can’t travel a lot, as most come from a Western-centric narrative that helps reproducing structural inequalities.”

Therefore, how can those with “weaker” passports feel more included in the travel community? As Fumanti noted, there are few critical voices from people who are restricted from travelling due to the origin of their passport. “We should hear more about the experiences of those coming from parts of the world that are in an unequal position of power. Being inclusive is about the redressing of these structural inequalities, which in turn becomes a political issue as countries have distinct immigration policies related to their own politics.” He adds, “we need to allow plural narratives in the travel community out-side the Western-centric narrative, which will inform people about the required paperwork for visas, the existing restrictions, and how they can prepare for it.” However, at its core, he recognises that this plurality can only come out of the redressing of structural inequalities.

To conclude my interview with Dr Fumanti, I asked him whether he thinks that current political times will pose additional threats to travel privileges. He replied that it is indeed quite obvious that there will be more restrictions in place. “In the UK, even if Brexit really happens, there will certainly not be much restrictions for Britons in terms of travelling.”

I agree with his statement, as I recall my British friends and European friends discussing what would it mean in terms of travelling to one another’s country. Nevertheless, I believe that the impact would still be minimal, in comparison to the restrictions non-European travellers faced and continue to face.

“Even before Brexit,” Fumanti says, “Theresa May already introduced tighter restrictions for non-European travellers.” In the United States under Trump, “anyone coming from Latin America will face longer checks because of the prevailing idea that the US is above other countries, even if the people who wish to travel there do not intend to stay as they already have a great job in their own country”, he concludes.

When we travel, we often forget that we are travelling within broader structures of power and privilege. Being born in Switzerland to Russian parents, I received my Swiss passport when I turned 12 years old. At that time, I was too young to be aware of what it represented, and of the privilege attached to it. It is only later, as I became confronted by others’ inability to travel, that I realised the privilege that my passport offered me, which I, from then on, never took for granted.

Passport privilege is not something that people should feel guilty about. However, as the ability to travel where we want is not a right, the fact that it is a privilege must be acknowledged. It is true that people should be encouraged to travel, but we must realise that there are many situations that prevent people from doing so. Not everyone can just “pack and go.”

Originally published at www.thesaint-online.com on April 11, 2019.

MSc Politics & Comm at LSE. IR graduate from the University of St Andrews. Interested in tech, politics and international affairs.

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