Some Passports Are Worth More Than Others

When crossing borders becomes a crime

Claire J. Harris
Jun 2 · 3 min read

This is the sixth year of Australia’s “offshore processing” centres — which means that many refugees have now been trapped on Manus and Nauru Islands for longer than the prisoners of war in WW2. At this time in 2013, I too had recently made my way to Australia after 10 years of living abroad and moving from country to country, continent to continent. I was not in fear of my life, I was not fleeing persecution, I was travelling for fun — an unimaginable concept for most of the world’s population.

As an Australian no one stopped me, not even when I crossed into Mexico illegally by wading across a river. Occasionally I needed a visa but I could always get one because I had Australian dollars to pay for it. My passport, by virtue of bearing one nation’s stamp and not another, gave me the right to pick (almost) any country in the world and get a plane there. When I had enough, I went somewhere else, also chosen on a whim.

A history of migration

The history of humans is a history of migration — it is, after all, how the world came to be populated, how my parents ended up in Australia, and how I happen to have a shiny Australian passport. Borders for me are often nothing more than invisible lines in the dirt, where for others they are cages. These borders are always arbitrary, lines drawn up at random by self-appointed governments or colonial powers, that divide families, villages and communities.

This privilege was pointed out to me many times throughout my travels, by those trapped within the borders of their country. I met many people who dreamed of enjoying the freedom I had, the ability to earn a decent wage, the choice of where to go on holiday. For others, it was to fulfill an even more basic human need: survival.

The case for survival

The one that stuck with me the most was a family on the outskirts of Dakar in Senegal — refugees from the civil war that has ravaged Liberia for decades. They were living in donated tents pitched on cracked earth in a vacant lot littered with rocks and sand. The only difference between my life and theirs was what they called “the YES passports and the NO passports.”

Wherever I went, I knew all I had to do was wave my YES passport and get on a plane back to Australia. Arriving here at the same time as the men on Manus Island, I enrolled in studies, got a postgraduate diploma, found a well-paid job and made an independent film in my spare time. The men who tried to come here by boat are still locked up.

A lot can happen in six years. But only if you’re lucky enough to have a YES passport.

Our cruel system of indefinite detention is designed to break the spirit of those who’ve come seeking asylum by water, by depriving them of hope for the future. Quite possibly they can expect to spend another five years behind bars, as punishment for the crime of seeking a better life.

Read an extract from my memoir:

Ousman rolled up his trouser leg and pointed to two scars carved into his leg. Bullet wounds. They told us they couldn’t get work in Senegal because they didn’t speak French or Wolof, the local language, but they still smiled and offered us part of their meal.

Their dream was to be sent to Australia as refugees, Ousman explained, but they had to wait in the camp for their names to finally be called and their future home country to be assigned to them. If they were lucky.

‘But what can we do? There’s the YES passports and the NO passports. And we’ve got the NO passports.’ Ousman rolled down his trouser leg, covering up the scars of war so we wouldn’t have to look at them.

This piece was originally published on my website. Like my writing? Sign up to my newsletter here, or follow me on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Claire J. Harris

Written by

Global wanderer. Expert thumb-twiddler. Travel writer, screenwriter and copy writer. Find me at

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade