Passport privilege: Different kinds of migration

Volunteer Words
July 12, 2023
6 min read
Holly Farrell

Where we are born is entirely a matter of chance. A series of coincidental events, each falling like dominoes and causing another, leads us to where we are and to the people with whom we surround ourselves. It says nothing about who we are, what we can do or who we could be. Yet nothing so coincidental is so significant to our lives.

Growing up as a dual national between the UK and Ireland, I rarely gave my background a second thought. It was only when I became a migrant myself that the true extent of my passport privilege was made clear.

Over the past 2 years, I have moved across Europe several times. I have taken full advantage of the EU’s freedom of movement, living and working without the thought of a visa ever entering my mind. I suppose it never really felt like I was crossing a border at all. Each time I landed in a new country I just had to show my small burgundy booklet, and I was free to enter, no questions asked.

Since I began volunteering at IHA at the beginning of June, I have never given so much thought to my own immigration background and passport privilege. Witnessing the demoralising waits and bureaucratic obstacles associated with the asylum procedure has almost fed into a feeling of guilt on my behalf. As millions of asylum seekers across the world are brutally pushed back from borders and forced to put their lives in the hands of smugglers, I cannot help but feel that I do not deserve the ease of migration, which I have so extensively enjoyed. Nothing I have done, or potentially could do, has given me the passport privilege which I have taken for granted. It is nothing more than pure coincidence.

Our volunteers receiving a delivery of 10 palets of soap which will be distributed across the region. The IHA warehouse in Thessaloniki serves as a logistical hub for other organisations and social projects in the region, supporting thousands of refugees and people in need across Northern Greece.

Passport privilege refers to the extent of an individual’s freedom to travel abroad, depending on their passport’s issuing country. Rankings such as the Henley Index assess passport privilege based on the number of countries nationals are able to visit visa-free or by visa-on-arrival. ”

The 2023 Henley Index is led by Singapore, whose passport has 194 destinations, whilst the most powerful passports of Europe belong to Germany, Italy and Spain. Having access to 191 destinations, they are tied as the third most powerful passport in the world. Meanwhile, the world’s weakest passports are possessed by Iraq and Syria, granting access to 29 countries, and Afghanistan, which enables travel to just 26 countries visa-free or visa-on-arrival.

Such a vast mobility gap only acts to worsen pre-existing global inequalities. Whilst western countries largely attempt to restrict their accessibility to those from the Global South, individuals are barred from opportunities for education, economic growth and personal safety. Whilst the world stood in shock at the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the subsequent worsening of poverty and oppression, Afghan nationals have visa-free access to less than 1% of global economic output, paving the way for Afghans to be barred from substantial economic development or risk their lives in search of a better life.

Such a discriminatory visa policy is fuelling the prevalence of smugglers and deadly border crossings as there is a clear correlation between the strength of a nation’s passport and the ease and safety of claiming asylum. If European public policy prevents visa-free access for nationals of refugee-producing countries whilst also preventing asylum claims from being made outside of the potential host country, it is inevitable that dangerous routes into Europe will emerge. This is made evident by the discrepancies in British asylum policy. Whilst individuals are usually outlawed from making an asylum claim outside of the UK, over 210,00 visas have been issued to Ukrainian asylum-seekers to enter the UK over the past year. As a result, there has been no record of Ukrainians trying to cross the English Channel in small boats to enter the UK. Instead, the majority of journeys in 2022 were made by asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Iran and Eritrea, who possess much weaker passports.

This highlights the difficult truth that the prevalence of deadly sea crossings into Europe is preventable, and largely stems from restrictive visa and asylum policies.

Article 13 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own. Migration should not be a privilege denied on the basis of a passport’s issuing country, whilst seeking asylum should not depend on an individual risking their life to cross a border. Mechanisms must be in place to enable a safe passage for all, otherwise people will continue to lose their lives in search of a better future.

As my time volunteering at IHA is slowly drawing to a close, I know that leaving will carry a strange feeling. I am very grateful to have been able to support the impactful projects carried out by IHA, such as language classes and food and hygiene distributions, which provide valuable assistance to the integration of asylum seekers into Europe. The importance of grassroots NGOs in improving the lives of those going through the asylum procedure truly cannot be understated.

I know that there is nothing that I have done to deserve the ease of migration which I enjoy. Instead I owe my visa-free experience to the coincidence of having a parent born in an EU country. Yet safe travel should not be a privilege, it should be a right. As I come to terms with the advantage that my background has given me, I know that I have an obligation to do what I can to support those who lack the privileges I enjoy each day. Meanwhile, I will certainly never look at my passport in the same way again.

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