Passport Politics

Having grown up in several different countries, traveling has never been a foreign concept to me. If I were to count the hours I have spent on a plane, I’m sure it would amount to several years of my life. Having said that, traveling is still difficult for me. Why? Because I have an Indian passport.

Image courtesy of dannyman, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of dannyman, © 2010, some rights reserved.

With an Indian passport, there are very few places I can travel to with ease and not have to think about applying for a visa. Indian passport holders can travel to about 53 countries without having to apply for a visa beforehand. However, most of these countries grant visa on arrival for any traveller. In comparison, an American passport holder can travel to approximately 159 countries without having to think about visas. In fact, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune, most American passport holders don’t even know visas exist.

Surprisingly, Americans are not the freest travelers in the world. According to an annual chart published by Henley & Partners, an international law firm, Swedish, Danish, and Finnish passport holders can travel to up to 173 countries freely. People of Somali, Iraqi, or Afghan descent have the most constraints put on them and can only travel to about 25 countries without difficulties.

By comparing which passport holders are the freest and which are the most restricted, it becomes clear the reasons are both economic and political. Ultimately, it appears as if it comes down do the perceived security threat of migration. Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Finland all have relatively stable economies and political situations; thus, these citizens do not pose the threat of immigration to another country. On the other hand, given the recent combination of war, political violence, and instability in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is obvious the concerns put in place by border control on these citizens. However, whether or not it is moral is a question for another article.

Countries such as Brazil, China, and India have turned the tables and started requiring tourist visas from almost any traveler. In comparison, Australia which processes visas almost immediately, processing time for these countries can take several weeks. What is interesting is that these three countries are all emerging global economies, and in a few years their concerns regarding migration could be identical to those of Western Europe and the U.S. What is even more interesting is that skilled immigrants from China and India may be exactly what the U.S economy needs.

In terms of boosting the ailing American economy, several experts have concluded that the influx of skilled immigrants results in the creation of jobs. Vivek Wadhwa, Director of Research at Duke University’s School of Engineering, suggests that bringing in skilled immigrants will eventually pave the way for unskilled immigrants as well:

“So bring the right people in and you will make the pie bigger for everyone, and we can bring in more unskilled as well because we will have a bigger economy. We need them,” he said.[1]

It is the fields of science and technology that have the biggest growth potentials, and statistically, Asian immigrants have consistently filled those jobs. But the scrutiny that comes with being Indian or Chinese and applying for any sort of visa retards the process and is, in a manner, negatively affecting the American economy.

So the reasons underlying visa restrictions on some and not on others can objectively be viewed as understandable. It makes sense that prosperous Western states do not want to deal with a flow of refugees from conflict-ridden states such as Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also understandable that it takes a long time to process resident or long-term visas, even if it is clear that the results will be beneficial. However, I cannot help but wonder about how these visa restrictions are just another way of communicating Western dominance over the non-Western world.

Just two weeks ago, I was in line at immigration in Heathrow, and at a certain point the line breaks up into two: one for US, UK, and EU passport holders and one for international passport holders. What strikes me every time is not this simple divide, but the fact that for no reason at all, I may be at the front of the line but they will let multiple people from the other line go before me. What’s the reason for this? I actually asked my immigration officer, who surprisingly was quite friendly. His answer?

“There isn’t a real reason, it’s just the way it works.”

As most people in my conundrum, I was not satisfied with this answer, but I also wasn’t going to cross-question an immigration officer.

In a year’s time, I will be eligible for American citizenship. Given my clear feelings on how difficult it is for me to travel, it may seem clear that I will instantly forsake my Indian passport. Truthfully, I don’t want to. I like the idea of representing where I come from when I travel the world, and cancelling my Indian passport would be erasing a large part of my identity. It is disappointing that in a globalizing world where many Non-western States are emerging as world powers, citizens of those states are still being treated as dangerous and untrustworthy.

But perhaps it is “just the way it works.”