The Invisible Power of Citizenship

Politics of Passport in the Contemporary World

Shreya Urvashi
Oct 21 · 6 min read

Recently, Thailand put out a new regulation for its tourist visa which, amongst other things, included that Europeans would have to provide six months bank statements as well as a couple of other documents to obtain a visa. This led to a semi-outrage amongst the Europeans who found it crazy to show bank statements to go on holiday.

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While the European and other white population empathized with the outrage on the seemingly unnecessary restrictions, the rest of the world, i.e. around 90% of the global population, seemed amused and a tad bit confused. Primarily because this is the same rule that most European countries have for tourists coming from everywhere else (especially the ‘third world’). While we have been screaming for years about the differential and often discriminatory treatment of non-white people in global travel, Europeans, and also North Americans, have for the most part remained blissfully ignorant.

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There are numerous instances where this has come out. On a personal level, the starkest difference was when I had to attend conferences in two countries in the gap of a month but could only attend one since the selection results were announced only two months before the dates of the conference. Getting two visas in such a “short time” is impossible, rather getting even one visa ended up being a last-minute affair, with every customer care helpline (of the visa office, of the conference, of the airline) coming up with the same monotonous advice that I should have applied for the visa at an appropriate time and should not have bought flight tickets before receiving the visa in hand. Anyway, the country I did manage to get to, had another student from Germany, who forgot to get a transit visa for Canada but managed to get it within an hour online. I stood there dumbfounded seeing her fill an application form knowing that if I were in her position, I would have had to fill in double the number of documents as well as attend an in-person interview after scheduling an appointment which could very easily come after a month or 45 days. If I had ‘forgotten’ like her, I would have ended up being an illegal immigrant and face deportation…

Vik Sohonie says, “Passport privilege remains an entirely unaddressed, unsustainable inequity, and the most consistently overlooked factor that defines every single immigration debate and “crisis” of movement and migration. Those soaked in the warm, comfortable balm of a privileged passport — freely traveling(sic) the world, subject to no scrutiny or suspicion, waltzing through immigration points with a 90-day entry stamp and a smile, moving and settling at a moment’s notice, protected from presenting an ocean of evidence to justify your legitimacy as a decent human being — are often completely oblivious to the rare power they possess.”

I cannot help but agree. Every industry faces the consequences. While the performing arts has continually reported that artists from Africa and Asia are not able to make it to concerts and events on time due to visa issues; academia is continually filled with research scholars of the Global South missing out on opportunities due to visa regulations. The intellectual and economic loss due to this is understandable. However, there is also a more profound impact on individual dignity. There are numerous accounts of people travelling with friends who had to stand in a separate line, or had to go through more number of checks, simply because of the colour of their passport (and skin).

Even the process of acquiring the most uncomplicated visas very often becomes a herculean task. If you have ever put together a meticulous visa application and been subject to the treatment of consular officials, you know how outrageous the process is. Quite a few countries ask for a notarized six-month bank statement with a minimum required average monthly balance, a travel history extending up to ten years, signatures that match precisely on a vast number of forms, and, maybe even a health and police report. Further, some nationalities suffer more than others. In some places, Asians would be treated better than their African counterparts. The arguments peddled for these are generally around poverty, a propensity for illegal migration, trade agreements, historical ties, and a host of other mostly irrelevant factors.

As a result, students accepted to top tier universities are routinely denied visas. Those looking for work lose up on job offers. Family members, including parents, cannot visit their children. Even tourists cannot plan holidays with no visa concerns. Moreover, several countries need a visa to merely transit through the UK or some of the ‘developed’ countries. On the face of it, it is a typical act of Western arrogance- People from the South only want to escape to the West, and cannot possibly have a desire to live in their own land.

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There is an obvious economic advantage of having strict visa regulations. Non-refundable visa fees generate millions in revenue every year. However, even the factor of class plays a role only to a certain extent as a look at airport experiences of movie stars and dignitaries of Asian and African countries would show. Ultimately visa regimes come down to racism. Several Latin American countries, like Brazil and Colombia, do not need a Schengen visa and are free to travel to Europe without a visa, due to their European blood. Asian countries, on the other hand, with similar per capita incomes and population sizes have to obtain visas. As a corollary, South America models its visa requirements after Europe despite having a rich African ancestry.

The current visa regimes were conceived at the time of the decline of the British empire. They were increasingly giving freedom to colonies and were losing legal and territorial supremacy. Thus, they privileged themselves at every potential economic, social, and political opportunity. Passports became an opportunity to safeguard their own movement in their (former) colonies while not allowing the colonized people the same access to their territory. This is also one of the reasons why there are almost negligible Indian or Namibian journalists investigating the British royals or the corruption in the UK, but freelancers with British, EU and American passports are readily found in similar roles overseas. Some countries, like the tax-free income societies of the Middle East, pay salaries according to the passports of their employees, with Western passports garnering more money.

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Citizenship is power. Passports, and even visas, are a hot commodity. While a western passport is liberating and helps its holders pursue their ambitions, holders of other passports end up trying to liberate themselves from its shackles. Western visas have become so powerful that their presence in a passport can waive the need for a visa to other countries. However, western embassies and western immigration policy are not to blame. Neither are the recent international treaties. An imbalanced, unjust system of global movement is the price we pay- where a tiny minority travels visa-free to all corners of the Earth while various consulates restrict the vast majority.

Now, in a rare move, Thailand has put in similar restrictions for the European passport. While it has been done under coronavirus concerns; in general, is reciprocating by putting in intolerable visa restrictions on western citizens the only solution there is? Such extreme measures are hard to imagine to be leading to desired results. Reciprocating the untold trauma of lives, education, and careers dramatically interrupted because of inherently discriminatory visa policies will do no good for humanity as a whole. It all comes down to this. 2020 has reminded us multiple times about the need for and importance of collaboration and exchange of knowledge across borders and institutions. Manifestations of privilege and power have to be rethought. The mere naming of solutions as “global” does not suffice when, for many people, there is a massive amount of emotional and invisible labour involved even after saying yes to an opportunity. We need to be better, and learn faster.

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