Borderline crisis

Privileges and restrictions of nationality, manifest in the immigration policies of the Western world, are proof of 21st-century apartheid

Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 17 August, 2018

Earlier this year, my wife and I had our first child. Like my wife, he was born in New York City. He is fortunate to have roots in this world metropolis, which sees so many people come and go. Moreover, the geography of his birth entitles him to a great modern privilege: A powerful passport. From birth, Americans enter an exclusive class of people, those who have passports that open the world to them, distinct from the greater mass of humanity whose passports make crossing borders all the more difficult.

The rise of Donald Trump and his ideological allies in the West has spawned all sorts of furious talk about how borders are too porous, how immigrants threaten to pour in unchecked and overturn Western societies. Absent in any of those conversations, of course, is any recognition of how real borders are around Western countries, how for so many people the mere process of applying for a visa can be an intolerable ordeal. That’s because citizens of Western countries like the US are rarely aware of the enormous luxury of their travel documents. Borders melt at the wafting of an American or British passport; the worst inconvenience is often having to stand in line at the airport to collect a visa on arrival. To be born into a Western passport is, in a very real sense, to feel and know that you have a right to the wider world. To possess a non-Western passport, however, is to be told that your claim to the wider world is much more tenuous or, indeed, illusory.

I was reminded of this inequity while reading the British journalist Daniel Trilling’s book Lights in the Distance, an elegant account of his reporting from across Europe’s borderlands where the supposed migration “crisis” is thrown into sharp relief. Trilling speaks with a Sudanese migrant called Jamal, who spent a lot of time in Calais, the French port town from where migrants in recent years have tried to get to the UK. Jamal attempted day after day to thread an almost impossible needle. The only feasible route for him and other Sudanese asylum-seekers across the English Channel was to smuggle themselves into the undercarriages of unsuspecting trucks. That feat required tremendous patience and luck. Jamal would stake positions along side roads where trucks often stopped, hiding behind bushes and trees and in ditches, waiting for that brief moment when a driver might go to the bathroom or otherwise leave his vehicle unattended. Then he would dash over and try to hide himself underneath, hoping that he wouldn’t slip once the truck began moving and get crushed beneath its wheels. Rates of success for this mad gambit were abysmally low. The furthest Jamal got was into the Channel Tunnel, where he was discovered by police at a checkpoint. After a perilous and demoralising period in Calais, he abandoned his dream of reaching the UK.

That simple journey across the English Channel can be done with thoughtless ease and for minimal cost by somebody who has the right passport.

Think as well of the great treks that so many Syrian refugees undertook in 2015, crossing from Turkey to Greece via boat, then journeying overland, often on foot, through one Balkan country after another into Central Europe. That journey cost many of them tens of thousands of euros paid in fees to smugglers and middlemen, in addition to overwhelming physical and emotional hardship. For Europeans travelling in the other direction to much of the Middle East, all they need is the fare for a plane ticket and a valid passport to collect their visa on arrival.

Some might shrug and say simply, “That’s the way things are.” It could always be worse — better to have a passport, any passport, than be condemned to the statelessness of the Rohingya in Myanmar or the potential four million people in Assam now with dubious status.

But while the great imbalance between the West and the rest is not new, it is becoming all the more glaring in an age when people everywhere have so much information at their fingertips as well as the ability to condense vast distances by texting or using WhatsApp or Facebook. We are powerfully more aware of how others live, our intellectual and cultural lives often already enmeshed with those of societies far away.

The arbitrariness of nationality threatens to imprison the aspirations of so many. With geopolitical instability and ecological upheaval unsettling many parts of the world, it’s no surprise that more and more people are on the move. That is, after all, an eternal human impulse, one that has only been curtailed by the distinctly modern (within the last 150 years) barriers of the nation-state. In his monumental essay ‘Homelands’, the journalist Stephan Faris likens the working of immigration policy to “one of the most clear-cut acts of injustice in recent history: an attempt by South Africa’s apartheid regime to preserve racial privileges in the face of worldwide opposition.” It may sound extreme, but when you parse the inequities of the current system, the privileges and restrictions of nationality loom as the apartheid of the 21st century.

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