By Ambi | Issue 23
Migration, both as a term and a phenomenon, often conjures images of journeys, of movement from one place to another. However, in modern times, international travel is more complex. The international system has already laid out who can travel and under what circumstances. This article delves into the challenges people face while planning their international travel. It focuses on passport and visa privileges and how they exacerbate temporal disparities and spatial inequalities between the “developed” and “developing” world.
Often overlooked in policy discussions, temporal inequalities are an integral part of a hierarchical structure that contradicts principles of fairness and humane treatment. I argue that the “safe, orderly, and regular” maxims in international migration frameworks, such as the Global Compact for Migration, need to be re-evaluated through the lens of power and hierarchy in the international system. Who gets to move, and under what circumstances? The maxims adopted in other major frameworks, including the highly debated New Pact on Migration and Asylum, need to be examined for carrying colonial and discriminatory undertones.
Expectations vs. Reality
In certain corners of college dorms, a tense energy filled the dry autumn air in early October. It was not the usual mid-term exam stress but the anxiety of securing an available slot for the Schengen visa. Being an international student from the Global South in the UK already meant additional loops to jump through and scrutiny at immigration. Conversations among students from least-developed, low-income, lower-middle, and upper-middle-income countries (from here on, the Global South) often started with questions like, ‘Did you secure an appointment slot?’.
One acquaintance began looking for available slots in September, even before arriving in the UK to start her course. When asked why she desired a Europe trip despite the struggles, she responded, ‘Europe is Europe, with clean air and blue skies. It's very different from my region in Bangladesh, which is constantly threatened by floods. I want to experience Europe while I'm here for my Master's. Growing up, I read about European history and culture, the beauty of the Sistine Chapel and Rome's Colosseum. I want to see it in person.’ Another acquaintance from Ghana confirmed that a Europe trip meant actualising the classic literature he grew up reading and the popular culture he consumed from his teenage years. ‘Who knows, next to the Eiffel Tower, I might have my “Before Sunrise” encounter with a stranger?’
Meanwhile, an acquaintance from Indonesia shared how she motivated her parents to go on a trip to Europe with her. Raised in a remote part of Borneo, she had seen her parents work tirelessly for a brighter future. Now that she has made it to her dream MBA course in the UK, she is determined to fulfil another dream - taking a family vacation together to Europe to celebrate.
Despite their aspirations, reality proved to be harsh. Even though they were physically in the UK, with only a minor time-zone difference, the Schengen visa application process made them feel as though they were from a far-off land, constantly needing to prove their worthiness. To secure appointment slots, they had to employ various strategies and invest a significant amount of time. This included constantly refreshing the appointment portal at specific intervals, travelling to distant cities for their appointments, and enduring long waits to learn the outcome of their visa applications. Many students felt that the process of applying for a Schengen visa marked them as "coming from somewhere non-European, non-white, and underdeveloped". Some were surprised to find that the process for applying for a tourist visa from the UK was lengthier and more tedious than applying from their home countries like India, Bangladesh, or Indonesia. A few noted that the procedure might have been more convenient if they could have afforded an agent or if they had more time to spare.
Another incident involving a Pakistani Indian couple at Heathrow Airport highlights the flaws in the standardised visa system. The couple had pre-booked a flight from Heathrow to Dubai, and at the time of booking on the airline's website, there was no mention or warning of a transit visa requirement for their layover in Finland. However, when they arrived at the check-in counter, the wife, who is a Pakistani citizen, was informed she couldn't board because of recent changes to transit visa rules. This led to a tense exchange. Eventually, the husband, who holds an Indian passport, was allowed to board. Meanwhile, the wife had to arrange for a direct flight, facing additional costs and an extended wait for her departure.
This discrepancy in waiting times serves as a microcosm, illustrating that travellers' experiences can dramatically differ based on the “strength” of their passports and visa classifications. This challenges the notion that current immigration practices uphold the ideals of “safe, orderly, and regular” migration and instead suggests that they implicitly reinforce a hierarchy of privilege.
Countries ranking higher in the Henley Passport Power Index are projected to have more open economies, allowing for greater foreign investment and international trade. However, a passport's strength, indicated by its visa-free or visa-on-arrival privileges, represents more than just economic potential. It also mirrors geopolitical influences shaped by historical colonial and racial dynamics. For example, Brunei, a small Asian island nation renowned for its oil and gas reserves, has gained prominence in the geopolitical arena, leading to a higher passport ranking. Meanwhile, African nations have yet to break into the top 30 of the Index.
The process of obtaining visas and navigating immigration underscores that passports are more than just tools for economic mobility. They also dictate the freedoms one can experience or be denied. My first time crossing borders was less romantic and glamorous than I had anticipated. I spent three hours in an immigration line, facing grey walls adorned with plain posters reading “Welcome to UK Border”. I stood in the lengthy “Other Passports” queue alongside other apprehensive students and tourists. Many clutched folders to their chests, rehearsing potential answers to the anticipated questions from immigration officers. Some even bonded in this shared ordeal over their mutual complaints, such as the lack of restroom access.
Meanwhile, individuals with more powerful passports effortlessly breezed through the “e-migrate” process. Although such experiences are fleeting, they shape the impressions and feelings of migrants from the moment of their arrival. This contrasts starkly with my journey to Thailand, where I cleared immigration in just fifteen minutes, revealing the deeper politics of movement.
All the incidents highlighted involve migrants attempting to traverse borders through “safe, orderly, and regular” pathways, yet they still encounter obstacles that often drive them to rely on brokers, even at exorbitant costs. The fact that some must invest significantly more time and effort into processes that take merely 15–20 minutes underscores the pressing need to champion “safe, orderly, and regular” migration. Addressing the biases ingrained in the system is vital. Recognising passport privilege and temporal disparities is a crucial first step. Only by establishing a genuinely inclusive, equitable, and just framework can we envision a world where migration is determined not by the colour of one's passport but by the collective aspirations of humanity.
As both a migration researcher and a migrant myself, my relationship with migration and mobility has been shaped over the past five years. It is deeply personal and academically informed. Having traversed international and national borders in search of better opportunities, I possess first-hand insights into the complexities and systemic barriers of various immigration systems. Recently, I completed my MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford, specialising in labour mobility and immobility and platform-based gig work. This academic background complements my lived experience, providing me with a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted challenges and opportunities that migration presents.