The Power of a Passport

Sophie Dowle

by Sophie Dowle, Arabic:-

“We’ll miss you! When will you be back in Jordan?” asks one of my friends who’s from Iraq but lives in Jordan.

“I’m not sure”, I reply. “Maybe next summer, it depends whether I come back here or
go to a different Arabic speaking country. You should come visit me in Britain! It’s really lovely!”

I say it without thinking, I’d love to show my friends the dreaming spires of Oxford and the green grass of home.

“I’m not sure we’ll be let in.”

They say it in a jokey tone, but they’re being serious. With an Iraqi passport they’ll struggle to enter Britain, and even if they are allowed to enter it will take so much time, effort and money to get a visa that it’s probably not worth it.

“We’ve got the second worst passport in the world.” They laugh. “Only Afghanistan is worse!”

I’m a British citizen and I hold a British passport- one of the most powerful passports in the world- I have visa-free access to 174 countries. I have spent the past year in Jordan, citizens here who hold a Jordanian passport have visa-free access to a mere 45 countries, and the refugees from Palestine, Syria and Iraq, who make up 40-60% of the population, have access to even fewer.

Many of my friends often talk wistfully about travelling to Europe and America, but the cost and difficulty of obtaining a visa to these countries puts them off, or makes it impossible to visit. A colleague at work lived in Germany for a couple of years but to be able to do so he had to go through an arduous process. He tells me about the questions he was asked- did he support any terrorist organisations, could he prove he would return to Jordan, did he have a large sum of money in his bank account, and so on. At borders he’s often held up- a passport with Arabic writing on it doesn’t do much to fill border staff with confidence.

I come across stories similar to this almost every day. I worked for an organisation that aims to promote and provide access to funded study opportunities to young people in the MENA region. The most popular opportunities are often ones that involve studying or travelling abroad. However, as our daily messages show, the difficulty of obtaining a visa, or funding to purchase a visa, is a constant barrier to obtaining these opportunities. Many are put off from even applying to a study abroad opportunity by the high costs, the prospect of endless bureaucracy and grilling, and the thought that even after all of this they will probably get rejected. This world of opportunity that many people in the West have such ready access to, is denied to many bright minds due to the lottery of where one is born, how much money one has and who ones parents are.

The issue of wasta– the concept of who you know, not what you know- which is so prevalent in Jordanian society, perpetuates a feeling of hopelessness in being able to study or travel abroad. Many see studying abroad as something only richer, better-connected individuals can go where they want and will be able to secure these opportunities because they know someone who will be able to get them a passport or visa quickly, or the right permissions to be able to secure them.

Even more pressing than students being unable to apply to study abroad programmes due to strict border controls, are those without passports who are seeking to escape unspeakable horrors in places such as Syria and Libya, and are trying to find a place to live elsewhere in the Middle East, or in Europe. Without a passport or the law on their side, these people undertake unbelievably dangerous journeys not just to find a hope for education but also a hope for life. Their reason for struggling across unwelcoming borders isn’t international travel- it’s survival, but this makes it even harder for them to cross these borders. Seeking to provide education opportunities to the ever growing number of refugees is becoming ever harder, as funding dries up and the world grows tired of the stories. Providing basic education is a challenge, let alone study abroad opportunities.

In contrast the vast majority of us have been able to study abroad for a year without too much border control related hassle. Having a passport, and a passport which enables you to travel to a large number of countries is a privilege that we, or certainly I did, take for granted. Those of us in Europe also have a special kind of freedom- if you have a passport or visa that allows you to enter the Schengen Area, you are able to travel border-free between the 26 member countries.

As I come to the end of my year abroad I spare a thought for those who are not so lucky to be able to secure such a fantastic opportunity, and who are unable to travel as widely as I have been able to.

For more tales from the Middle East, see Emmeline Skinner Cassidy’s moving account, Scattered Hearts.