Many years ago, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I remember seeing the world’s hierarchies clearly defined with three distinct divisions at immigration: a visa on arrival section, temporary detention cells, and the everyday immigration queue. Brown South Asian citizens lined up for a rare opportunity at obtaining a visa on arrival, meanwhile mainly black Africans filled the detention cells, and westerners, presumably carrying their exalted passports, filled the seamless immigration queues. Malaysia offers visa-free access to more African countries than most, and yet suspicion was reserved for holders of wretched papers. Observing this, it was clear that cemented hierarchies of access based on nationality were stark and crystal clear.
Passport privilege remains an entirely unaddressed, unsustainable inequity, and the most consistently overlooked factor that defines every single immigration debate and “crisis” of movement and migration. Those soaked in the warm, comfortable balm of a privileged passport—freely traveling the world, subject to no scrutiny or suspicion, waltzing through immigration points with a 90-day entry stamp and a smile, moving and settling at a moment’s notice, protected from presenting an ocean of evidence to justify your legitimacy as a decent human being—are often completely oblivious to the rare power they possess.
A very tiny minority enjoys this blissful ignorance without recourse, this regal deference. That’s not how it works for the rest.
A small spotlight has finally been shed on an injustice suffered by nearly four-fifths of humanity. The music and literature industries in Britain and the United States have made public the vast denial of visas to celebrated musicians and authors from across the Global South, with citizens of African countries scheduled to attend cultural festivals particularly hard hit. But it is the seemingly nefarious activity of the UK Home Office that has rightfully drawn the most ire.
Sorie Koroma, an elderly, blind virtuoso of Kondi music from Sierra Leone (he is known as Sorie Kondi), was scheduled to perform last year in the UK, Europe and had the hope of carving a new market for African acts in key cities in East Asia. With tour dates confirmed, Koroma applied for a UK visa in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, through a third-party service, to which British and European embassies condescendingly outsource the handling of visa applications. Management via local proxy is a tried and tested colonial method.
Koroma received an email stating that his visa type is usually settled in 15 days, and even less if an expensive priority service is purchased. However, the email added: “unfortunately, the processing of your application has not been straightforward and we will be unable to decide your application within our customer service targets.”
Koroma had performed in the UK before and repeat visitors are usually cleared quicker. After 60 days, Koroma’s passport was still held by the UK with no explanation or option to rescind the application. He subsequently missed his tours everywhere.
Ghana’s legendary King Ayisoba was in a similar scandalous limbo, but his passport was returned in time. In many instances, British embassies or the main visa processing center in Sheffield have held onto applicants’ passports longer than the officially stated processing times, causing artists to be trapped for weeks, if not months, missing their shows worldwide. Incompetence and bureaucracy are not the menace. A pattern of holding passports hostage, and Europe’s insistence on effectively moving its southern border to the Sahel, reveal what can only be an official policy to police black and brown movement.
The loss of income is but one travesty; the indignity cuts far deeper.
This behavior came as a shock to many. Outrage on social media has been directed at embassies, immigration policy, corruption, the west’s sharp turn to the right, fascism, bigotry—the usual 2018 culprits. Directors of major international festivals in Britain jointly signed a call to action for substantial policy changes to demystify a deliberately opaque process.
But the anger is amusing and long overdue. No one on the other side of the west’s gates are surprised. For us, there has always been three borders: the western embassy on our own soil dictating our mobility, intimidating immigration agents waiting on the skybridge just as the plane parks, and the final immigration and customs section.
Western visa regimes, conceived at the deathbed of empire—the British Empire at its peak allowed for varying degrees of free movement within the colonies—have long been about fortification, limiting freedom of movement, of privileging westerners at every conceivable economic, social, and political opportunity.
It’s why there are almost no Nigerian or Indian freelance journalists condemning corruption and investigating the monarchy in London, but freelancers with British, EU and American passports can be found in numbers building their careers overseas.
It’s why in some of the best paying job markets in the world, like the tax-free income societies of pliant Gulf states, salaries are determined by nationality, with unwritten laws guaranteeing western passport holders higher pay. In global financial centers, be it Singapore, Dubai, or Hong Kong, drowning in the hierarchies of capitalism, western passports are the top of the food chain.
Citizenship is the most powerful currency today, often superseding race. It’s why a British citizen of Pakistani origin feels entitled to slap an Indonesian immigration officer after being told she owes $4,000 for overstaying her entry by 160 days—a relatively paltry punishment for violating immigration law.
Passports are a hot commodity, and countries like Mauritius, boasting one of the best African passports, are joining the marketplace for “citizenship planning” that comes at six to seven figure sums for more favorable papers.
Visa applications are largely an exercise in indignity, as anyone who has put together a meticulous visa application and been subject to the treatment of consular officials can attest. Valhalla’s gates apparently require a notarized, six-month bank statement with a sufficient average monthly balance, a 10-year travel history with evidence, signatures that match exactly on dozens of forms, and, on occasion, a clean health and police report. Western arrogance cannot fathom that many of us have absolutely zero intention of abandoning content lives to smuggle ourselves illegally into societies that are steadily depreciating in value.
Some nationalities suffer more than others. Citizens of African countries have nearly 50 percent of all applications denied just in the UK, compared to just eight percent in the Middle East and 13 percent in South Asia.
Students accepted to top tier universities are routinely denied visas. This is a well-known reality for Haitians. Job seekers with sponsorship letters are not guaranteed employment. This is a reality for Indians. Elderly family members are often unable to visit their children. This is a reality for Lebanese. Tourists looking to simply holiday and contribute to ailing economies are not spared. This is a reality for Thai citizens, who graciously open their doors to all and sundry, but are not repaid the favor. Several African countries need a visa to merely transit—yes, transit to catch a connecting flight—through the UK or some EU countries.
The trauma of lives, education, and careers dramatically interrupted because of inherently discriminatory visa policies is untold. A western passport liberates its holder to pursue ambitions while the rest must make the attainment of a western passport their end goal. Life choices are arduously shaped to guarantee new citizenship for themselves, and most importantly, their children.
Those that perish in the Mediterranean are condemned to the cruelest of fates because they lack the correct passports, and know all too well the futility of an extortionate visa application. There’s really little else to it. Were, say, Malian citizens able to engage in “visa runs”—leaving and returning to a country to gain a fresh entry stamp every few weeks, or how westerners often illegally migrate elsewhere—they would not be prey to slavers and human traffickers. Just think about that. Africans being shifted through the Sahel would rather pay tens of thousands of euros to the most sinister characters than even attempt to pay the two or three figure visa fees.
Once a successful career and corresponding documents demonstrating one’s financial standing were enough to secure a western visa. As a literary festival in Scotland found out, too much money is now grounds for denial, which is odd, because visa regimes are, at their core, a cash cow enterprise, simply another looting scheme to drain former colonies. Non-refundable visa fees generated millions in revenue just last year. Over a million visas were denied by the EU in 2017. At the base rate of 60 euros for a standard short visit visa, do the math.
One might say that class plays a role as wealthy elites enjoy more straightforward border controls. But even Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich recently discovered that his endless wealth and vast ownership of British assets was no panacea. As western power recedes, its ability to reign death from the skies and its barbed wire visa approach are what remains of its grip of this world, and it will cling onto these remaining outlets of might as its five centuries of global domination gradually dissipates.
So why bother or persist? Because western visas are so powerful that their mere presence in a passport can waive the need for a visa to several other countries, like Turkey and Mexico, and grant the holder a legitimacy that even a globally acclaimed lifetime’s body of work cannot.
Indeed, western countries are not the sole privileged passport holders. Visa-free travel is afforded to countries with small populations, like Caribbean Islands, where Antiguan passports for instance are readily available for sale, or well-off societies that are anchors for global capitalism, like Singapore or Mauritius. The arguments peddled to maintain visas revolve around poverty, a propensity for illegal migration, trade agreements, historic ties, and a host of other largely irrelevant factors.
Ultimately, visa regimes come down to racism. It’s why several Latin American countries, thanks to European blood, are free to travel to the UK or Europe without a visa, while Asian countries with similar per capita incomes and population sizes are not. It’s why countries like Brazil and Colombia, despite a rich African ancestry, maintain stringent visas requirements modeled after Europe.
It’s why Australia considered fast-track visas for white South African farmers, subscribing to the white nationalist myth of a white genocide spurred by land reform policy.
The outrage in western cultural circles is justified and commendable as they stand up for African artists. But it’s perplexing, and revealing, how deeply the west is held as the exclusive domain for the world’s best acts. Indeed, fan bases in Europe for African musicians are sizable and, as record sales go, Europe is still the leading audience for African music. Losing steady access to the British market would have untold financial consequences, but perhaps it’s about time the indie music industry in the West caught up with the rest of the world, where several industries of all sizes see Europe or the UK as less likely viable long-term markets. No business can survive without seeking new pastures.
This coordinated outrage did not exist when black and brown lives were irreparably damaged by the millions, but only when western audiences were denied summer entertainment. Only when western pleasures are jeopardized does one take notice of the gross injustices of access.
Western embassies and western immigration policy are not to blame. Neither is Brexit. Outrage should be directed at the root of the issue: an imbalanced, unsustainable, racist system of global movement. How much longer can this unequal arrangement survive when a tiny minority of the world can travel visa-free to all corners of the Earth while the vast majority’s freedom of aspiration is determined within opaque consular walls.
Most western countries must still follow Australia’s lead in banning the travel of pedophiles, who outrageously have greater mobility and access than respected African artists and professionals with spotless records. It is simply not sustainable.
What are the solutions? Reciprocity means little to the west. Many in the Global South will argue that the west only understands the language it speaks to the rest of the world: force and strength. Are we to begin slapping intolerable visa restrictions on western citizens, starving our economies of multiple avenues of income? Are we to transform our embassies in western capitals into garrisons of indignity? Are we to follow the west’s toxic approach of fettering the human compulsion to migrate to brighter futures? Even if we took such extreme action, the response would undoubtedly be punitive.
From simply the vantage point of music and culture, perhaps we can draw opportunity from a difficult moment. It’s time to cultivate new markets. Much of the west is closed. Why force the issue while hungry, young, hyperconnected, touring markets like Asia, Latin America, and Africa await, eager to immerse in the global exchange, with an inevitable future helming the forefront.
It’s about time—no, far overdue—that the majority of humanity, afflicted by the same fetters of movement, are blessed to experience the endless dynamism of live bands from across the African continent, rather than just the fortunate few in the west.
Writer Kanishk Tharoor argues that “the privileges and restrictions of nationality loom as the apartheid of the 21st century.” Like all forms of apartheid, it comes with an inevitable expiry date.