The Power of the Passport: Discrimination against Third-World Countries?

Passport4I really liked this Pambazuka article on the brief history of the passport. For those of us coming from ‘third-world’ countries, the act of applying for visas is both quite expensive and time-consuming. I always wondered why citizens of the ‘developed’ world could enter most countries in the world free of charge, while citizens of underdeveloped countries needed visas. The logic always seemed twisted to me, especially given that the converse was not true. For instance, a South African citizen needs a visa to enter the USA for tourism/business, but an American citizen does not need a visa to enter South Africa for the same reasons, and the list goes on. The article below goes over it. For the full article go to: Pambazuka . Here are some excerpts.


Fatou Diome1
Fatou Diome

[…] In spring 2015, Senegalese author Fatou Diome, whose works include The Belly of the Atlantic, caused a stir during the French talk show Ce soir ou jamais!. Only a month earlier, over 1,000 had drowned in one week in the Mediterranean Sea after their boat had capsized en route from the Tunisian coast to Italy. Diome vented her anger about the current European perspective and discourse on migration. And she expressed her belief that there is an underlying global problem that is rooted in the privileged treatment of a small percentage of the world’s population that depends on a document:

Europeans see Africans arriving, ok. This migratory movement of populations is tracked and visible. But you don’t see the migratory movement of Europeans going to other countries. This is the migratory movement of those with power, with money. Those who have the right kind of passport. You go to Senegal, you go to Mali, you go to any country in the world, to Canada, to the U.S. Everywhere I go […], I meet French people, German people and Dutch people. I run into them everywhere on this planet because they have the right kind of passport.” (translated from French) (Diome 2015)

Fatou Diome2
‘The Belly of the Atlantic’ by Fatou Diome

Apart from unmasking a very selective European perception and use of the word ‘migration’, Diome addressed an apparent inequality. There is a structural force which privileged nationals can ignore while the unprivileged are confronted with it every day, namely the power of a passport. Clearly, this inequality is not a natural development, but has evolved over time, as a look at the history of this small document shows.

[…]  The focus here will be on the international passport. This document is used to control the departure from the home country, entering a foreign country and returning to the home country. All those who have crossed a national border know the process of handing his or her passport to a border official behind a glass panel. This guard checks you and your passport very thoroughly and sometimes asks questions about your purpose of travelling.

Passport5Nonetheless, a German passport allows the holder to enter 172 of the Earth’s 192 countries without a visa. Reversely, people from only 81 countries can enter Germany without a visa – an imbalance that quantifies a passport’s power. The development of a passport hierarchy is an advanced process, which has only been taking place for some decades. It leaves citizens from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, South-Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo or Liberia at the bottom of this hierarchy and enforces a restrictive and often arbitrary system of visa issuance on them. This system allows economically and politically powerful nations to use people’s mobility as a bargaining resource and reinforces their dominance. An example of this mechanism is the 2014 FIFA world cup in Brazil: European countries had a keen interest in granting their football-mad citizens free access to the host country. Brazil managed to secure liberalized visa regulations for its own citizens traveling to Europe in return. In this instance, the cultural event gave Brazil negotiating power and that in turn increased its economic and political power. When states lack these material and symbolic resources, they are less able to give their populations access to international networks, exchanges, education and jobs.

World map (Wikipedia)

Alternatives become possible when we start deconstructing the perceived ‘naturalness’ of the status quo. A growing number of intellectuals, scholars, artists and political activists are pointing to the historical development of borders and making us aware of their violence and their arbitrariness. They argue in favor of social and economic advantages that non-existent borders might yield…a world in which we can claim that the passport was just an episode that lasted for little more than a century. It would be a world in which Diome’s statement would ring true for everyone:

We live in a globalized world in which an Indian might live and make a living in Dakar, someone from Dakar in New York, someone from Gabon might live and make a living in Paris. Whether you like it or not, this is an irreversible fact. So let’s find a collective solution, or move away from Europe, because I intend to stay.” (translated from French) (Diome 2015)

6 thoughts on “The Power of the Passport: Discrimination against Third-World Countries?

  1. I have never thought about passports in this way. The truth is the western passport and some other countries give those people unlimited access to other countries. However I wonder if these other countries should make their own laws concerning western passports or passports from European countries.


  2. Pingback: Trump’s immigration ban and Europe: the courage to raise a mirror and look beyond it | Forced Migration Forum

  3. Pingback: Trump’s immigration ban and Europe: the courage to raise a mirror and look beyond it – LaPSe of Reason

  4. Here is a comment from a reader, J.T from Germany.:

    “I always read your blog, which I like very much. Today I wanted to comment the Pambazuka article about passports

    Ironically, German philosopher Immanuel Kant once claimed, that hospitality is a universal right: “Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another. One may refuse to receive him when this can be done without causing his destruction; but, so long as he peacefully occupies his place, one may not treat him with hostility. It is not the right to be a permanent visitor that one may demand. A special beneficent agreement would be needed in order to give an outsider a right to become a fellow inhabitant for a certain length of time. It is only a right of temporary sojourn, a right to associate, which all men have. They have it by virtue of their common possession of the surface of the earth, where, as a globe, they cannot infinitely disperse and hence must finally tolerate the presence of each other. Originally, no one had more right than another to a particular part of the earth.” (Kant, Perpetual Peace)

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful articles,

    All best wishes”


  5. Luiz

    Brazil has the principle of reciprocity. If a country requires Brazilians citizens to have a visa, Brazil will require a visa from its citizens. Americans, Canadians, Japanese, etc. need visas to enter Brazil. Brazilians also charge equivalent fees for the visas. When Spain, which does not require visas from Brazilians, began barring an excessive number of Brazilians at its airports, Brazil began doing the same to Spanish citizens.


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