Whenever I’m flying with someone who is a laid-back traveler – someone who arrives just before check-in closes, then eats a full breakfast sitting down as I approach meltdown – I tease them for something I call “border privilege”. Chances are, a relaxed traveler was born with access to a passport that has a “high power rank.”
If you don’t know what that is, you’re in luck because you’re probably the holder of a passport that ranks high on the Henley Passport Index – a global ranking of countries in terms of the freedom of travel their passports enjoy. The higher your passport, the more “border privilege” you have – that is, the ability to cross national borders with, at best, a sense of excitement and, at worst, mild annoyance at the concerns of travel.
As the reality of Brexit bites and international travel grows post-lockdown, Brits are about to discover a few things about border privilege – namely, what happens when you lose it. Only a nation that saw freedom of travel as a right could have thrown it away so coolly. Those who didn’t grow up with frontier privilege can tell you that without it, the journey is a bumpy road; something to tighten your loins for, prepare document files, say a few hellos Mary and inshallah.
The passports at the top of the Henley index allow the holder to visit almost 200 countries without securing a visa in advance. Those below, like the Sudanese I was born with, have to go through the eye of a needle before being allowed to enter most countries. Applicants face almost unscalable walls of bureaucracy and suspicion, comical document requests and, often, humiliation and rejection.
For a long time I was so terrified of trip failure at the 11th hour that I wouldn’t make any plans until I was firmly on the other side of the border. I only booked tickets at the last minute, at an exorbitant cost, when I was sure it was too late for anything to go wrong. I’ve missed visa applications for weeks and months beyond my intended travel date, I’ve missed the bedside of sick relatives, the celebrations of friends and family, and more job and training opportunities than I care to count.
Having a low-ranking passport means that its holder is under constant threat of being slammed down in the middle of a trip. An overlooked visa detail by a border official meant that I was summoned, just after landing in Riyadh, to a room with angry Saudi border officials who reprimanded me for this indiscretion and put me back on the next flight. I was not allowed to leave the airport until I had paid for the return flight, which took all the money I had. Another time I was put into secondary processing in the US with no explanation and no recourse, where I was left for so long without information or updates, it probably amounted to some kind of illegal detention.
Since 2016, the British passport has fallen from joint first place in the index to sixth. With this comes a new reality, which is already being ominously described as the “new normal”. Travel to and within Europe is becoming unpredictable, expensive and generally more of the series of hurdles others are used to. Inserting a single stamp to enter the EU sounds like a pretty small thing, but it causes hours of queuing and then the domino effect begins – missed connections, lost luggage, refund mazes.
In this new reality, consistency is gone. What you’ll need to enter France is different to what you’ll need to enter Spain, the latter of which recently confirmed that British visitors may need proof of sufficient funds to cover your stay, a return ticket and proof of accommodation. Whatever the requirements, the adequacy of your evidence must be assessed by a single watchman within whose person the entire border lies. You will understand that all travel permits, both those requiring only a stamp and those requiring an involved visa process, are subject to different versions of the same short sentence usually attached to entry permits and denials in travel information packets: This is not a final entry visa, a border official may still refuse entry.”
Someone with a low-ranking passport will tell you that in all interactions with this border official you should absolutely keep your own counsel, knowing that this guard holding your passport is, for the next few minutes, the most strongly. in your life. They are a sovereign, they may or may not make laws on the spot, and possibly plunge you into financial ruin. Even if things are bad, you should always remember that they can get a lot worse.
In all situations you should calm yourself by repeating a mantra that reminds you that you are lucky: lucky to have made it this far; lucky to have the documents and means to travel at all; lucky you have the skill and physical ability to negotiate an unexpected obstacle; and lucky that the worst you’re likely to face is a smarting ego and wallet, rather than a ban or deportation.
I share these experiences without hate. I once sat, shivering, next to an elderly South Asian woman shaking in a wheelchair as she was yelled at during secondary processing at a US airport for not being able to speak enough English to answered questions about who he was visiting. Whatever work her family had done to secure her entry into the country was wiped out by a single new arbitrary demand.
The most important lesson you will learn is that border officials may not know the law and yet are infinitely empowered. They may be poorly informed, under-resourced or unable to keep up with changing border policies; and yet they are part of such a large and messy border police machine that your poor treatment and their mistakes will be swallowed up in it.
For British travellers, however, there will be an extra kick. Your complaints will then be trivialized by Brexit evangelists. You will be told that these are small sacrifices to be made, the squabbles of a privileged few in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis in a country struggling to regain control of its borders and economic destiny, which are unable to afford or cruise vacations with our nearest cheaper neighbors are a “first world” problem.
But eventually, what will become clear, as with all the consequences of Brexit, is that the benefits we’ve lost can be reclaimed by those who have more – fast lanes, travel insurance, funds and time. For the rest of us, I recommend compiling a paper file with supporting documents, a very early arrival at the airport and, if you get overwhelmed by frustration or panic, remember that it could always be worse.