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Travel Restrictions during COVID-19: How Are They Changing “Passport Privilege”?

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A United States passport in the pocket of a suitcase.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the American passport was considered one of the most desirable passports a person could have. Now, US passport holders may find themselves reflecting on the level of “passport privilege” to which they have previously been accustomed as they confront restrictions on where in the world they are welcome.

To help us learn more about passport privilege, travel restrictions, and migration during the coronavirus pandemic, we asked SIS professor Tazreena Sajjad some questions.

Q. Americans have previously enjoyed a high level of “passport privilege.” What is passport privilege, and what benefits do certain citizenships provide to travelers?

What is a passport? At one level, it is a bureaucratic document that signals to the international system an individual’s political belonging to a nation-state. It gives an individual access to mobility across an international border with authorized approval. At another level, the passport is a powerful means of communicating one’s place in the entrenched global economic, political, social, cultural, and racial hierarchy that defines our world. In other words, the passport serves as the primary document through which one is placed in a structure borne out of the Westphalian system and, later on, the processes of decolonization. It, therefore, tells the world what one is.

The concept of “passport privilege” is a way of saying how much access an individual has in terms of the ease of crossing an international border. While those without passport privilege have always been aware of what this means, it is now a point of reflection for many American citizens in light of COVID-19.

There are several ways of understanding passport privilege.

First, how easy is it for an individual to acquire a passport? For instance, while 42 percent of American citizens have passports, the actual bureaucratic hurdle to get a US passport is not complicated, time-consuming, or expensive if one is able to provide the essential paperwork proving one’s citizenship. The US Postal Service provides a reliable venue through which one can apply for and receive a passport. The simplicity of the process is a privilege denied to most people in the world.

Second, what is the level of ease with which a citizen can enter a foreign country? As of October 2019, an American passport holder could travel to 184 countries without a visa or receive a visa on arrival.

Third, how easy is it for someone to receive a visa without enormous bureaucratic and political hurdles, high costs, hassle, and harassment along the way? While an American or European citizen may face scrutiny in trying to enter, for example, North Korea, Iran, or a country deemed turbulent, this is an exception and not the norm.

Fourth, how is a passport holder evaluated and supported within one’s own political community? For many in the so-called Global South, a US, Australian, or British passport signals not only economic success but also social currency and status that increases a family’s standing in one’s community and enhances marriage prospects.

Holding the “right” passport also means easy access to bureaucratic services when one is abroad. For instance, while embassies exist to support their respective citizens through assistance with passport expiration and renewal, the “right” kind of passport means better access to information, and, in situations of dire political or environmental crises, the possibility of emergency evacuation.

It would be remiss to not mention a newer dimension of passport privilege, which challenges conventional ways—birth, marriage, and, in some instances, complex sponsorship programs—in which such a document may be acquired. Today, there is a growing industry of citizen-by-investment programs (CIPS), which cater to the ultra-wealthy of the world. In the simplest terms, this means that at the right price, people can purchase a passport without having any historical ties to a country and without having ever lived there.

The popular Henley Passport Index, through its classification of the “strongest” passports, clearly demonstrates what passport privilege looks like in terms of the level of visa-free access some confer upon their carriers. In the most recent ranking on January 7, 2020, Japan and Singapore dominated the chart with visa-free access to 191 and 190 countries, respectively, while the United States was ranked eighth in the world. Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia have the lowest rankings, with the Afghan passport being ranked as the “worst” in the world.

In every society, whether in the Global North or South, passport acquisition remains a racialized, classed, and gendered enterprise. Those that a country renders stateless or undocumented (through denial or stripping of citizenship) or those who are economically and socially marginalized by virtue of ethnicity, race, class, lack of education, caste, and/or marital status, cannot produce necessary documents like birth certificates, navigate complex bureaucratic hurdles, or pay for or bribe officials to gain access to a passport legally.

Q. What factors have historically determined the “power” of any given passport?

The passport has always derived its power from the economic, political, and military power of the country which issues it. Given that the current hierarchy of the international system is a product of great powers in the past and in the contemporary world, it is not surprising to see that the European countries, many of them former colonial powers, are associated with the world’s most powerful passports. Since the end of WWII, the US, with its military might, diplomatic reach, economic strength, and its emergence as a contemporary imperial power, also falls in that category. A non-Western state, Japan, which too was an imperial power and is now considered to be one of the most advanced economies in the world, possesses enormous “passport power,” as do newer arrivals, such as Singapore and South Korea, which are prominent economic powerhouses with stable political systems.

The existence of programs such as CIPS have meant additional categories may be considered as ways in which passport power is evaluated. Passports from Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, or St. Kitts allow for greater mobility; those from Montenegro, Vanuatu, Cyprus, and Malta allow for visa-free access to Europe, protection from travel bans, possibilities of tax invasion, and, in the times of COVID-19, assurances about access to healthcare and the possibility of lower rates of infection.

While the ultra-wealthy from the US and Europe have conventionally been active participants in the passport market, extremely wealthy individuals in “non-Western contexts” such as Lebanon, Nigeria, China, and India now participate in this lucrative industry. In addition, passports can exert notable power within their regional contexts: for example, the South African passport has far more political and social currency than the Cameroonian one; the Indian passport has greater value than the Nepali one; and the passport issued by the Yemeni government is nowhere near as powerful as the ones issued by Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

Q. Even before COVID-19, why have countries had different visa requirements for travelers of different nationalities? What incorrect and unjust assumptions are made about a person when travel and immigration are enforced in this way?

Since passports function within an international system that is highly racialized, classed, and gendered, it follows that since their inception, they have created zones of exclusion and inclusion based on explicit and implicit understandings of the good, reliable passport, largely from the Global North and most developed countries imbued with ideas of “those who are like us,” and the bad, questionable passport, largely from the Global South and “those who are most unlike us.” Correspondingly, visa requirements for different nationalities reflect these institutionalized assumptions.

Furthermore, assessment of individual visa applications is not based on an objective and value-neutral criteria but is imbued with explicit and implicit biases, and the assessment of individual applications is more subjective than objective. For instance, while a European citizen whose country participates in the visa waiver program can enter and stay in the US for 90 days after applying for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), an individual with a very similar background will be subjected to a very different set of rules within a far more complex visa process. These involve submission of extensive and time-consuming paperwork, including documentation of economic assets; bank statements; property statements; detailed rationale for wanting to enter the US; a letter of sponsorship; evidence of family ties to prove they will not be a “flight risk;” multiple expensive fees, including to private firms that now handle visa processing on behalf of the US embassy in many countries; multiple background checks; and, finally, an interview with a visa officer who will determine whether a visa will be granted and for how long.

Under international law as it exists and the established practices of states, each country does have the right to control who enters its borders. Second, the dominant justification for these highly cumbersome and expensive processes are as follows about people from the Global South:

  1. They overwhelmingly constitute a “flight risk,” i.e., they will not return to their countries of origin after arrival.
  2. Many will try to enter the (Western) country using fraudulent documentation, thereby undermining state authority to control its borders.
  3. Those coming from economically disenfranchised and politically volatile countries will be a drain on social resources and potentially engage in criminal activities.
  4. Many of those coming from a Muslim-majority country are potential terrorists.

While each of these assertions merit a long discussion, it is important to examine these concerns in a different light. Let’s look at them one-by-one:

  1. Border control is premised on an understanding of nation-states not just as political and economic units in the international system, but as ahistorical entities, i.e., there is little acknowledgement about how countries with the most amount of political, economic, and military access have accumulated their power, how fortifications have emerged out of specific moments in history and why, how the movement of people from former colonies have historically been a subject of rigorous policing, and how mobility is a highly political and politicized project of control.
  2. While there is a lot of focus on visa overstayers and “flight risks” from people from the Global South, there is very little information and scholarship about people from the Global North who overstay their visas; remain as irregular migrants in poorer countries, violate terms of their visas by working in such contexts; or live on with expired passports, e.g., Canadians and Irish in the US or Americans in Mexico. There are various reasons as to why visas are violated, but the fact that we politicize migration from certain contexts and know so little about the movement of other groups underscores the racialized and classed ways in which migration scholarship, practice, and politics are produced and reproduced.
  3. While production of counterfeit documents is undeniably a criminal activity, there is very little scrutiny of why such an industry not only thrives but needs to exist. The truth is, given that regular migration through passports and visas are the domain of a favored few, and mobility, while a right, has been framed and politicized as a privilege, when one is stateless, undocumented, poor, desperate, and/or in a state of economic and political crisis, there are very few avenues left for the majority of the world’s population to cross an international border legally. A more valid question we need to puzzle through is how and why we have normalized and naturalized the mobility of some while placing extraordinary measures to restrict the movement of others.
  4. There is now a growing body of scholarship exploring the assumed links between migration, criminality, and terrorism—all of which point to the fact that there is little evidence to suggest that there is a direct and consistent relationship between them. However, effective conflation and politicization of these issues means that a passport becomes the means through which the international system understands not only what one is, but who one is, i.e., as a testament of moral character. For instance, a passport holder from Sweden will be inherently assumed to be ethical, honest, and moral, while someone from, for example, Nigeria will automatically be assumed to be dishonest, unethical, and a potential criminal. In short, those who do not have passport privilege largely shoulder the responsibility of having to prove that that are worthy of a visa and of gaining access to a foreign country. Furthermore, in the aftermath of 9/11, nationals of Muslim-majority countries have come under heavy scrutiny; have been denied entry, surveilled, arrested and detained; and, overall, have been treated as the enemy. The refugee/Muslim/travel ban in the US today echoes with a similar refrain. In contrast, in the event of the commission of a crime or a terrorist act, those with racial privilege and passport privilege do not face any scrutiny over their mobility. For instance, the 2011 domestic terrorist attack committed by a far-right extremist in Norway did not disrupt European travel to the US.

Q. How has the lack of US leadership on the coronavirus “devalued” the American passport so drastically?

The US is going through an extremely difficult time brought about by a lack of proactive political leadership that until now has failed to recognize the true scale and scope of COVID-19. This failure and its politicization meant that in 2020, the US is one of the top-10 countries with the highest number of cases in the world and one of the highest recorded deaths per capita. The surge in the United States is so extreme that, once adjusted for population, 10 states are recording more new cases than any country in the world.

While the European Union has been allowing some movement of internal and external tourists since July, the US was put on a defacto travel ban list because the rates of infection in the country are so high. Other countries that are not permitting American visitors include Canada, China, and the Bahamas. The United Arab Emirates is allowing Americans based on the premise that it requires travelers from high-risk countries to take a COVID-19 test no more than four days before their scheduled flight. At the time of this writing, only nine countries currently allow American visitors without restrictions—Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia, the Maldives, Tunisia, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico—although Mexico does not currently permit driving in over the border.

Being banned from entering a country because one holds the passport from a state one calls home is a new experience for Americans. But it is important to keep things in perspective. First, the US travel ban is a temporary one and is in direct response to a health crisis that the current administration has not addressed effectively. It is not, as in the case of most countries in the Global South, a commentary or evaluation of the citizens of the country based on harmful and false assumptions about their ethnic, political, religious, and cultural identities, nor is it a response to an understanding about the assumed character of America and Americans. Second, when and if the current administration or a new administration signals a serious commitment to addressing the COVID-19 situation, reducing the rates of infection, and containing it, Americans will be able to take full advantage of their passport privilege again. If there is one takeaway from this experience, it should be a somber realization of how passport privilege works, what Americans take for granted, and what travel bans mean for the citizens of a country on which it is imposed, especially when travel is not just for tourism but for reasons such as education, work, medical treatment, family reunification, and refugee resettlement.

Q. Should countries be closing their borders to citizens of other countries with a high number of coronavirus cases? How will the pandemic shift how people travel between countries in the new “normal”?

On the surface, closing down borders to prevent the entry of COVID-19 to protect a country’s citizens and to control the virus constitutes a tough but effective strategy. Certainly, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has received significant praise for suppressing its spread using strategies such as closing the country’s borders. Taiwan and Kerala in India, which have each received less Western media attention, have both been impressive in controlling the spread through the temporary closure of borders, as well as implementing other strategies, although a second wave may still be likely as is the case in other contexts.

But the policy of border closure to prevent entry of the “foreign infected Other” has not emerged in an ideological or political vacuum. There is a long history of “migrant Outsiders” being considered a medical threat, shaped by the racialized fear of those who were categorized as being “inferior,” including the Roma, Jews, the poor, the stateless, and those who moved from more economically and politically fraught backgrounds. So when border closures are considered as a policy option, it is critical that we interrogate how the policies are implemented, for whom, for how long, and examine their impact with close attention to the most vulnerable. One must also consistently pushback on the inherently harmful assumption that people from economically and politically disenfranchised countries are more “infectious” by virtue of them being poor, indigenous, transient, refugees, or asylum-seekers. Anyone can be infected by COVID-19, and anyone can be a transmitter.

The US has deported migrants who were infected with COVID-19 in detention centers back to contexts such as Guatemala, thereby spreading the virus; migrant families stranded at the US-Mexico border waiting to seek asylum have been exposed to the virus as a result of border policies; and there have been anecdotes of volunteers working in refugee camps in Greece without PPE, exposing vulnerable populations living in extremely squalid conditions to the virus. While the extreme politicization of refugee arrival has meant that there is enthusiasm about border closures in the Global North and South, such debates do not include the risks carried by US tourists on cruise ships; those circumventing travel bans by virtue of rerouting their travel itineraries; Americans who are exploiting loopholes, weak quarantines, and divergent national policies to travel to Europe; or the extremely wealthy who exploit passport privilege through the CIPS program discussed earlier. In the discussion on border closures and travel bans, there is limited questioning of the assumptions behind Greece opening its doors to tourists but extending lockdowns for refugees in the island camps or about the specific circumstances that create a situation where migrant populations in the Persian Gulf have some of the highest rates of infection in the region.

COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the global tourism industry and travel for research, education, family reunification, and work has also been drastically reduced. Irregular modes of migration, largely used by economic migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers have been impacted as a result of border closures and pushbacks, although desperation and hope continue to drive people to move despite harsh border policies.

It is hard to predict all of the dimensions of the long-term impact on international travel—both regular and irregular—but we need to recognize that human migration is both necessary and inevitable. Effective management of people, especially those who are in a state of crisis and who need to move in the times of COVID-19, is complex but possible, keeping in mind that the virus and its ramifications are here to stay. However, to move beyond travel bans and lockdowns, there is an urgent need for serious political will, collaboration, and a commitment of resources in the long-term, centering the importance of the value and dignity of human life—irrespective of what kind of passport is associated with those who are on the move.