I don’t wake up every morning thinking, “I’m so lucky to be a Westerner and to have a French and a Canadian passport.” Really, I don’t.
But this time I did. I had two visitors, one a Westerner, the other a young man from Myanmar, who almost didn’t make it because… he isn’t a Westerner.
His initial trip was to have taken him through London but after three weeks and a $140 visa fee he still hadn’t heard back from British authorities. Cancel London.
He was more fortunate with his Schengen visa, which came through after a few days – and after various letters of recommendation were sent on his behalf from upstanding citizens of upstanding countries.
Even so, his visa is strict: it begins on the day he lands, and ends the day his flight is scheduled to take him back to Yangon. Most Westerners, on the other hand, get an automatic 90-day Schengen visa.
Should he happen to make friends or fall in love with a place and want to stay a few more days that would be impossible. Penalties for overstaying a Schengen visa can be harsh, from fines (hundreds of euros, depending on the country) to a written warning (it goes into your file and might get you turned down next time you apply for a visa) to deportation and a future ban.
This brings to memory a scene I experienced in a consulate not many years ago. As I was politely interviewed for a visa by a smiling clerk, a young man with dark skin sitting next to me was getting the third degree, with incredible rudeness, an automatic criminal by color.
The intense shame and anger I felt that day came rushing back the other night, as my friends told me about their visa adventure.
I forget, as a white European, how easy it is for me to see the world and what an impossible dream it can be for others. I don’t know whether to be grateful this is so, or to be angry, or both.
Visas for Europeans – by the numbers
If you’re from the UK, Finland, Sweden, Germany or the United States, you can visit 174 countries without a visa. If you’re from Denmark or Canada, that’s 173. If you’re from Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, France, Japan, Portugal, Spain or South Korea, that’s 172 (granted, there are two Asian countries in this group, but they are rich, and money talks). Next in line are Ireland, Norway and Austria. And so on.
What if you’re from Nigeria? You can visit 37 countries without a visa – most of them in Africa, and many of the rest too tiny to matter. From Cuba? A dozen, and some of those aren’t really visa-free because you’ll have to buy a visa on arrival. And out of curiosity, what about Myanmar? About half a dozen, although visa-free travel to the other members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, should be available soon. That will only ben an extra ten, by the way, and travel to Indonesia and the Philippines, two of the members, is already authorized.
Bottom line, my friend could travel easily to six countries, and I could travel to 172 or 173, depending on which passport I used.
Take the United States – an example and by no means an exception. It operates on the assumption that most people from non-Western countries will try to stay in the US. I’m sure some will. But is that a justification to reject more than half the applications from Ghana or Mali?
Travelers from countries with a reputation for being partial to terrorism also face these issues when traveling. Not everyone in Pakistan or Libya is a terrorist.
Your personal respectability and integrity don’t matter. You can be a doctor or a lawyer or a judge but the label ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Nigerian’ sits brightly on your forehead, like a fluorescent stamp at a disco.
Now admittedly, in these times of economic hardship, immigration is a hot-button issue. Citizens of many wealthy countries are terrified that foreigners who work for less will garner the few available jobs and undercut the local population. Higher salaries are appetizing, and given poverty and conflict in many countries it’s not surprising people want to leave for better opportunities elsewhere, legally or not.
That’s an argument – and an important one – for another day. Right now, I’m talking about travel and tourism, about everyday citizens, students, teachers, engineers, waitresses, managers – anyone and everyone who earns a salary back home, loves his or her country, plans to go back in a few weeks, and has saved long and hard for the vacation of a lifetime to Paris, or Rome, or New York. These are the ones getting turned away – not the wealthy deans of drug trafficking or high-level money launderers whose tremendous wealth is usually welcome, legal or not.
I know the system isn’t fair, but at times I need to remind myself and others who travel that some of us – particularly white Westerners – have it easy. We don’t think twice about getting a visa, other than cost. Even the cost, relatively speaking, is low. Spending $140 on a visa may gall me and even hurt my wallet but it will have a far greater effect on my friend from Myanmar, a country in which average yearly income is just over $1000 a year (compared with $40,000 in France and well over $50,000 in the USA).
Beyond the cost, it’s about humiliation. Potential tourists from ‘less desirable’ countries will be asked questions I wouldn’t find acceptable, their most intimate thoughts dredged up by skilful questioning, their motives instantly suspect, their money, although real, not good enough.
So I woke up feeling lucky. Or angry. Or perhaps a bit of both.
I’ll get over until next weekend – when some Cuban and South African friends come to visit. And we have a nice conversation about their visa tribulations. That should be fun.