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Passports and Power

Some travel for adventure, others for survival

The Henley Passport Index recently updated their rankings of the world’s passports, based on “global mobility.” The world’s most powerful passports are the ones that secure visa-free passage to the greatest number of countries. Singapore now ranks number one, with Japan in a seven-way tie for third. For the previous five years running, Japan was at the top. But despite the strong showing for Japan, it’s not exactly a two-way street. Its notorious difficulty with inclusion of migrants (the few that it does allow) and its relatively small population and robust social welfare system are quite like the Scandinavian countries, which also rank high in passport power. And like the Scandinavian countries, the standard of living of the average Japanese citizen is far closer to Western Europeans than it is to much of the rest of the world. At the very bottom of the ranking of 199 passports are Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  

All this is to say that a document issued based on the arbitrary geography or ancestry of a human being’s birth still determines some of the most decisive aspects of their quality of life and the opportunities available to them. While this has always been true to some extent, the current moment is one when such a status quo is increasingly seen as unjust and yet also blatantly promoted by those who believe borders are not to be violated. Passports became common for residency and travel in the years after World War I.  After World War II’s atrocities, a set of liberal precepts were accepted by most Western countries, and new protections for human dignity, like the ability to claim asylum based on the fear of persecution, were put in place.

Now in 2023 the commitment to those liberal principles of equality and human dignity are weaker than they were when they were instituted. Take for instance two separate events that took place on the shores of Greece within a relatively small period. In the first, a fishing boat full of 750 migrants sank off the Greek coast. The migrants, from Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, were hurled into the water and all but 104 drowned.  According to a CNN investigation, testimonials from survivors alleged that the Greek Coast Guard’s attempt to tow the ship caused it to capsize. In 2020, the Greek Coast Guard was found to be involved in illegal “pushbacks” by rights groups monitoring migrant flow in the Mediterranean.

The Darien Gap in Central America is now frequented both by hapless migrants trying to get to the United States and adventure tourists who pay thousands of dollars just for the thrill of being there.

Another travel event unfolded on the Greek islands of Rhodes, Evia, and Corfu this past week. Dry conditions exacerbated by extremely high temperatures ignited wildfires that raged out of control by Sunday. Blanket coverage by television channels from Europe to the UK and the United States showed the thousands of tourists and residents who had to evacuate their fancy resorts. On camera, the tourists complained about having to leave the resorts at a moment’s notice. Some spent days in makeshift shelters before they were evacuated off the islands. At least some of the former thought that there would be some sort of special arrangements made for them given the money they had spent. Natural disaster, like everything else, should pause before the powerful passports. The Hellenic fire service for its part worked around the clock to help the tourists, with a persistence that would have been unimaginable over a month ago when so many hundreds were left to drown at sea off the Greek coast. Even worse, no one covering the fires appeared to see the differential treatment between the two.

Sometimes the migrants who come into contact with tourists cannot believe the people they are seeing. A recent investigation by Reuters news agency detailed how the Darien Gap; a particularly treacherous stretch of jungle in the heart of Central America is now frequented both by hapless migrants trying to get to the United States and adventure tourists who sometimes pay thousands of dollars just for the thrill of being there. The Reuters investigation interviewed a migrant who said that he encountered a group of men taking photos of the scenery while he was on his journey through the Darien Gap. He was shocked when he found out that these were adventure tourists who were there to shoot films and make content.

What could better illustrate the sheer entitlement of the wealthy and the increasing lack of moral shame or outrage at the reduction of one group of humans to a subordinate category while others can afford to reduce anything to an “experience” for “making content”? Both faddish words are examples of the awkward lingo that is meant to sound uplifting. There is no moral shame attached to the consumption of these “experiences,” in which the “thrilling” nature bypasses the depravity with which others with a different set of documents have no choice but to contend.

There are many places that see this juxtaposition between the lucky and the unlucky—which can often be read as the white and the non-white, the Western and the non-western, and so on. Sometimes “passport power” works in strange ways. One documentary, which first aired five years ago, filmed by the Urdu service of the BBC, profiled an odd town a few hours drive from Lahore in Pakistan. The town of Kharian has long exported labor, sending off migrant workers since the 1960s to help with Europe’s post-WWII building boom. What makes Kharian odd is its unusually large number of empty mansions. Ostentatious and gaudy, these marble-floored and ornately decorated mansions, which sport from eight to ten bedrooms and bathrooms, are mostly lying empty save for one or perhaps two inhabitants. Some are completely empty, watched over by caretakers. In interviews, the aging owners confessed that they had left Pakistan as migrant workers, one of them detailing the three months journey he took in 1971 across Afghanistan, Iran, and on to Turkey before ultimately making it to Oslo, Norway.

His dream, like those of many other workers, was to make a pile of money and return home to Pakistan. These men have managed to do that, even fulfilling the dream of putting up the mansions they had imagined their entire family would inhabit. What they forgot to include in that equation was the dreams of their children and grandchildren, who would have little interest in returning to the small town in Pakistan. The lucky laborers returned, they built the mansions and filled them with all the fancy gewgaws they could think of. But in the summer months when they return, they do so alone, their Scandinavian or British or American children lacking the fortitude to endure a season in which the temperature can go over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the power goes out without warning all the time. The passports that have brought more opportunity for their kids and grandkids have defeated their own dreams of returning to a happy home. They cannot understand the entitled worldviews of their progeny. Their own global mobility demanded so much sacrifice from them, but their wealth and success also gave their children the passport freedoms that lifted them above the common lot of the migrant.