Western passport: The black gold of our time that we don’t want to talk about

For richer nations, borders are demarcations for territorial control and political sovereignty. For the global poor, they are prison walls, often born into. It is remarkable how this great injustice of our time is the accepted norm.

Never in history has someone’s freedom to travel so inextricably linked to the national wealth and global standing of his or her country. Out of the nearly 200 officially recognised nations, the populations of only one-sixth of them have the freedom to travel to every corner of the world unhindered. Historically, people with financial means always had relatively greater freedom of travel, but in today’s world, citizenship, and not the personal wealth; determines how many parts of the world one has access to. Where we are born has a huge sway on our lifetime performance regardless of your personal character, educational standard, hard work and competence. If you carry a Western passport, borders dissolve—you simply buy a ticket, board the plane, visa-free or visa on arrival in over 90 per cent of the globe. Professionally, the whole world is your theatre of operation. But If you are born in a poor nation; there is a very minimal chance of ever leaving your country to escape poverty, seek overseas education or international employment opportunities.

Growing up in the Horn of Africa in the nineties, understanding how politically and economically our world is dominated by the West, wasn’t hard. The eminent position that English-speaking nations have in the current global order shaped our lives there, sometimes with great resentment. When a friend congratulated me for getting accepted to Oxford, a university known for running one of the most rigorous selection processes on the planet, I wasn’t sure if he quiet understood that, for an average African, to secure a British visa and come over to Britain was equally a great exception too. I know, for many of peers at home, working hard in school and aiming for the best Western colleges weren’t simply about working toward professional success, but breaking free from the barriers that borders present to them, cross into the supposedly impenetrable Western borders, and to progress on a par with their peers anywhere in the world.

To call national borders of poor nations prison walls may sound a bit dramatic to some people. But anybody who lived within the confines of these borders will truly understand how it feels—as if someone locked you up in a house and threw away the keys. For the proponents of nation-state which took shape formally in the postcolonial era; it has a stabilising effect as it holds fragile nations together, a key component of their continued existence as nations. They hardly state the real reason behind this massive architecture of border controls: curb potential mass migration from poor nations to the richer world. Given freedom to travel similar to that Westerners have, the poor will desert their countries leaving corrupt, autocratic leaders with no population to oppress or milk. For the people living inside these borders, they feel the rest of the world kept them at bay, held their dreams in check, had their hopes deferred, left them hostage to uncaring leaders who provide them with no meaningful public service. It is therefore no surprise that, to flee poverty and unrest at home, the youth engage in illegally crossing dangerous seas in pursuit of better lives.

Race and superiority of Europeans and people of European descent define the contemporary notion of citizenship and the privileges it confers upon the citizen. The majority of people who can move about the earth at will are Westerners and predominantly white. The rest who should stay put are predominantly black and brown as their world was shrunk by their natural place of birth. This heavily racialised travel restrictions and passport apartheid are best noticed at airports and commercial flights. When I landed at the Dallus Washington Airport outside Washington D.C. in 2015, I felt nervous as the immigration officer scanned through my passport and visa despite carrying valid visa. I was almost embarrassed when I handed over my supposedly worthless passport as other European and American passengers flashed their passports with confidence and pride. I was eventually let in. I secured that US visa after winning a highly selective summer fellowship. The experience is far worse in Western embassies in the developing world where locals are subjected to a brutal visa application process. Very few of them are granted. For the rejected, it is a blow to realising their dreams.

The annual passport ranking is to further confirm Western passport superiority and reminding the global poor that they are tied down to their miserable places for good. But if a passport’s credibility is determined by the wealth of the nation and its global standing, what about the failed states plagued by conflict and political instability and whose leaders inflicted a big reputational damage to the country? Can we hold their poor masses responsible to the actions and blunders of their leaders? Whenever I encounter a homeless man with blue eyes and blonde hair in British and American streets, I am reminded of how he did not put his globally superior citizenship and passport to his own advantage economically. If you are a poor Westerner and your passport in sitting in a shelf or in a bag in your house, just remember, for the global poor, that very idle document would have transformed their lives significantly.

The Western-passport-carrying highly mobile transnational global elite, or expatriates as they are sometimes called, are also unencumbered by the friction of distance and locality in landing in high-paying jobs. For the tourists who are served by the immobile poor in the hospitality industry in the developing world, they should know that the people who serve them can hardly afford to tour their region, let alone the world. In other words, global tourism is just one-way street. Governments of poor nations have also unfortunately accepted this unfair system, for their political and business elite have always been innovative to find ways to circumvent the unofficial global ban of poor countries’ passports, often using ill-gotten wealth. With the status quo set to continue, to be born a Westerner in today’s world is a fantastic stroke of luck, at least materially.

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