All passports are equal, but some passports are more equal than others.
A paraphrase from the Animal Farm by George Orwell, this statement captures persistent disparities in international relations. Passports and visas, and how they define the treatment of different nationalities, is a replay of how half-truths can be used to cement oppressive hierarchies in the global system.
Where one is born determines their passport privilege status. Your country of origin can either free or burden you when crossing borders. For those with passport privilege, traveling the world, whether for adventure or business, is as easy as ‘pack your bags and go!’ For those without, the road is littered with thorns and walls, and signs of “you are unwanted here!”
All passports are equal, but some passports are more equal than others
One of the most common standard reference tools for passport privilege is The Henley Passport Index, an index including 199 passports and 227 different travel destinations. The index tells you where you are allowed to visit, visa-free or visa-on-arrival. Based on historical data spanning 17 years, a quick glance shows that African passports rank lowly on the global mobility spectrum.
In the 2022 rankings, Japanese citizens have the highest passport privilege. Japanese citizens have visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 193 countries and territories in the world. Singaporeans and South Koreans have visa-free access to 192 countries. German and Spanish citizens have visa free access to 190 countries. Those from Finland and Italy can visit 189 countries without a visa. French and British citizens have visa free access to 187 countries. Americans can visit 186 countries. In general, holding a passport from Europe or the Americas gives you visa-free access to nearly all countries in the world, and so are those from rich Asian countries.
Citizens from these countries do not have to worry about applying for a visa when they want to travel. They are protected from the intrusive, extensive, and oppressive process that is typically burdened on travellers from other regions.
Mauritius, a small island country off in the Indian Ocean of a million people, is the highest ranked African country in the Henley Passport Index. Mauritians can travel to 146 countries without applying for a visa. Knowing their favourable position, Mauritius is offering foreigners a chance to obtain citizenship in exchange for a non-refundable contribution of $1 million to the national sovereign wealth fund. To be eligible for citizenship, an applicant must also have $100,000 per family member, amid criticism that the island has become a haven for dirty money.
African countries are crowded in the lower rungs of the passport privilege table. Most Africans do not have the privilege of traveling to countries outside the continent visa-free or visa-on-arrival
South Africans can visit 103 countries visa-free or obtain visa-on-arrival. If you hold a passport from Namibia, you have visa free access to 79 countries. Malawi, 74 countries and Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Tunisia, 71 countries. African countries are crowded in the lower rungs of the passport privilege table. Most Africans do not have the privilege of traveling to countries outside the continent visa-free or visa-on-arrival. Their passports are considered weaker and invites intrusive interrogation and racist labelling.
A few years ago, Ciku Muiruri writing for Quartz Africa narrated how, after spending a week in Bangladesh participating in the 2015 Dhaka Literature Festival, decided to tour Singapore and Malaysia. Both countries did not require applying for a visa in advance. For her return flight to Nairobi, she had to transit through Istanbul. At the airport, officials assured her that all she needed was a one-day transit visa for Turkey, which she could obtain from a little machine.
The first question on the screen read “Are you a citizen of the USA, UK, Germany, France… Chile, South Africa?” She was a Kenyan citizen. The next message on the screen was: “Unfortunately you are not eligible for a transit visa.” A holder of a less privileged passport, she was herded, together with other undesirable passport holders, black and brown people, to “a huge football stadium of a bedroom” for the 24-hour wait for the connecting flight.
Ciku is not alone. Vik Sohonie, the founder of Ostinato Records, a Grammy nominated label focusing on music from Africa’s past, experienced a similar fate at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. While “brown South Asian citizens lined up for a rare opportunity at obtaining a visa on arrival, black Africans filled detention cells, while westerners with exalted passports, filled the seamless immigration queues.” Sohonie observed that even in a country such as Malaysia that offers visa-free access, Africans are viewed with suspicion and served severe indignities. Africans must justify their legitimacy as travellers while those with privileged passports freely waltz through immigration.
The passport debate was recently reignited by the Ferdinand Omanyala debacle. Africa’s fastest man failed to obtain a US visa on time to travel to the 2022 World Athletics Championships (15 July 2022- 24 July 2022) in Oregon. While Omanyala secured a visa a mere 24 hours to the start of his race, the delay negatively affected his performance.
Passports are a hot commodity. The US consulate, perhaps more than another country, wields the power to grant or deny a visa more bluntly. Harrowing tales of waiting for hours outside US consulates for visa interviews that lasted only a few seconds, with no questions asked and no documents examined before an application is denied are abundant. Tales of interview dates being ludicrously
According to the U.S Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs, US law requires visa applicants to be interviewed by a consular officer at a US Embassy or Consulate. US law sets out standards for evaluating visa applications and visa denials can occur when a consular does not have all information to determine an applicant’s eligibility, when the applicant does not qualify for the visa category, or when the applicant is inadmissible or ineligible.
The US Nonimmigrant Visa (NIV) statistics indicate that the US granted more visas than it denied. For instance, in 2021, the US processed 3,148,323 visa applications. Out of these 2,792, 083 (89 per cent) were issued and 356,240 rejected (11 per cent).
A look at data from the United Kingdom reveals similar patterns. In 2020, the UK Visas and Immigration assessed 293,021 applications, and out of these 255,854 visas were granted, 34,390 applications rejected, 2,774 applications withdrawn, and 92 applications lapsed. The visa success rate was 87.32 per cent, with rejections constituting 11.74 percent of all applications. In 2019, the UK visa success rate was 87.62 per cent while the refusal rate was 12.13 per cent.
The narrative of more success rates than refusal rates hide inconvenient truths. The devil is in the details. In 2018, in “Visa Problems For African Visitors to the UK” by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), analysis of Home Office data revealed that African applicants are over twice as likely to be refused a UK visa than applicants from other parts of the world.
The data showed that from September 2016 to September 2018, UK rejected 12 per cent of all visa applications. When the data is broken down, the refusal rate for African applicants was 27 per cent, meaning that Africans bear the brunt of rejections. The refusal rate for Asians stood at 11 per cent, while 11 per cent of those from the Middle East were also rejected.
APPG boldly criticised the UK visa application process, particularly the logistical barriers placed by applying in one country and having an interview scheduled in a neighbouring country. The practice, the report argued, “imposes significant costs, inconvenience and in some cases hardship on some African applicants. The volume and type of documentation required as well as the process is considered particularly demeaning by visitors, who feel that they are treated differently from visitors from other regions.”
The report highlighted the nature of irrational visa decision making when it comes to Africans, lack of procedural fairness, and financial discrimination. In the latter, many applications are rejected because the applicant has little money, even when all costs have been guaranteed by a sponsoring third party, an aspect which amounts to discrimination based on income. Applicants also lack a right to appeal. There is no way to challenge prejudiced or inadequate decisions.
In Germany, a DW report revealed that one in five applications is rejected, far more than for other parts of the world. Analysis of visa data from 2014 to 2017 by German embassies showed that the number of visa applications processed and decided upon rose by 58 per cent, and the number of rejections rose by 131 per cent over the same period. During the same period, German embassies and consulates only accepted 10 per cent of applications from Africa, compared to more than 60 per cent from Asia and 23 per cent from non-EU countries in Europe.
Africans, whether applying for a US, UK, or German visa, face a hostile environment. The visa process racially profiles, discriminates, and humiliates
The cost element makes visa apartheid punitive and violent. Kenyan writer and journalist, Rasna Warah, despite studying in the United States was recently reminded of just how unwelcoming the US is to Africans. Rasna Warah studied in the United States and have traveled to the country several times, yet when she recently applied for a visa, she was given an interview data of 21 March 2021, almost two years after applying online, and paying Kshs 19,200 (approx. $200) non-refundable application fee. US citizens only pay $50.
The visa application process profits from global inequalities by siphoning scarce dollars from poor countries, such as Kenya, to fill an already brimming wallet of a superpower.
Africans, whether applying for a US, UK, or German visa, face a hostile environment. The visa process racially profiles, discriminates, and humiliates. African countries should advance a reciprocal relationship that protects the dignity of African citizens.