The freedom to travel

Published October 23, 2013

THE anguish of the visa line is known to every Pakistani who has ever had the aspiration to travel or has been desperate to do so.

Outside the embassies of Saudi Arabia, hapless workers toting village dreams line up. Outside the embassies of the UK stand orderly queues of hopeful Pakistani students, clutching their impeccable grades and cherished ambitions.

Abroad is where many futures lie; in the fast-food restaurants of Dubai, in the construction sites of Qatar, in the ghettoes of France, and in the driving seats of cabs in New York.

The possibility of such a future has never been more unstable. According to a series of rankings released earlier this month, the Pakistani passport, followed by those of Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, is one of the worst in the world.

Unsurprisingly, the rankings — which arrange countries according to those that require extra processing — list the usual Western, industrialised nations as the ones whose citizens have “the most freedom to travel”.

Citizens of the UK, Finland, and Sweden can travel to 173 of the world’s 218 countries without visas. The citizens of Afghanistan, the last country on the list, are required to obtain visas to all but 28 of the world’s countries.

The rankings were prepared and released by Henley and Partners, an international residence and citizenship planning firm, in collaboration with the International Air Transport Association.

The ranking of those free to ignore borders and those inescapably constrained by them is a reflection of the most stringent of the world’s divides, one determined entirely by the arbitrary lottery of birth.

Industrialised Western nations — the ones which prescribe principles of equality and non-discrimination within their borders, espousing the principles of liberalism as the basis of their polities — nevertheless base this crucial determination solely on the issue of which human has the fortune of being born in which territorial corner of the world.

Others, like several European nations, are even more nativist, awarding citizenship only if one biological parent possesses citizenship of the country. By and large, therefore, the fortunes of the world are still based on the accidents and lotteries of birth.

Such dirges for the misfortunes of birth are not the only consequences of visa regimes. The cost of obtaining a visa makes would-be migrant workers from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Pakistan particularly vulnerable to abuse by those who permit them to come.

In simple terms, being at the bottom of the list means that the relative position of the one begging for a visa is inordinately lower than the ones granting it.

The Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Somali workers, who beg for visas to work in the construction zones of Gulf Arab countries, have no rights, no voice; their abuse and death, hence, present no consequences to exploitative employers.

With few options, they remain tied to the hard conditions to get visas granted by their employers.

Around the same time that the report regarding visas was released, an investigation by the Guardian reported the large-scale abuse of migrant workers in Qatar. It estimated that the nearly 4,000 migrant workers could be worked to death while preparing the venues for the 2022 World Cup.

In the age of a global economy, where the crises of one nation reverberate in scores more, labour mobility is a crucial factor. Countries that can import and export talent stand to gain from these dynamics. In this sense, the tightening of visa regulations and their attachment to security concerns represents a new regime of global discrimination.

With capital and manufacturing jobs moving away from the developed world into countries such as China and India, where goods can be cheaply produced, the economies of the West are facing tremendous upheavals and reorganisation.

One basis of resistance against the loss of revenues has been the implementation of ever-stricter regimes of intellectual property, which require royalty payments even when manufacturing takes place elsewhere. The addition of strict visa regimes, where Westerners have the freedom of movement and consequently of working anywhere they may wish, is another.

The world, then, is divided between those who may move and travel freely, experience a variety of cultures and work environments, and those who may not. This division is not based on talent or on some earned capacity to progress, but on the accident of birth.

The masters of movement can define not only the economic and corporate narratives of the world but also the literary and cultural ones. They define the good and the bad, the interesting and the boring, what catches on and what is forgotten.

The world, quite literally, is available to them to consume, to criticise and to explore. They are the international class to whom borders have little meaning, where birth determines a warm welcome always, a never-delayed access.

On the other hand, forgotten others beset with restrictions and relegated to long lines and unexplained refusals remain the invisibles of the world.

It is a fact worth noting that all four countries relegated to the bottom of the list — Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan — have claimed that the US has violated their borders in one way or the other.

The incursion of the powerful, therefore, has not simply meant a mountain of casualties and flailing governance, but also being sentenced to the status of world pariah.

This invisible wall of visa restrictions, with its mechanics of exclusion and discrimination imposed on millions of the world’s citizens, is nicely packaged in the language of legalities and international norms.

Those left out by its imposing ramparts, its indignities and its denigrations, cannot say much of anything; for even if they did, their voices would not be heard beyond.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

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