Travel, despite current pandemic related restrictions, is here to stay. Thanks to budget airlines, digital booking services, and innovative BnB start-ups, the number of annual trips taken by tourists have surged from a mere 400 million in the 90s to 1.4 billion in 2018 and is only expected to rise, according to the World Tourism Organisation. Business trips, for example, made up one per cent of all airline journeys in 2019, but represented 75 per cent of airline profits. We’ve become a world of travellers, where investment in traversing the globe is as essential for professional reasons as personal ones.
While international movement has grown, so too has our mindset. There is even a label for wanderlusting members of society: global citizens. Global citizens are individuals who believe their identity transcends geography or political borders, and their numbers have been steadily on the rise in the last decade, according to a poll conducted for the BBC.
One such person is *Ayesha Farooqi, who was born in Malawi, and in turns has been a resident of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US, among other countries. “I feel very at home in a lot of diverse contexts, socially and economically, and I think that’s part of identifying with global citizenship,” she said.
But even as modern travel opens a world of possibilities, many travellers are still limited by a major factor: the colour of their passport.
This element places each of us in a world-wide hierarchy. Passport indexes are provided by several different organisations, but all measure the value of travel documents based on the access they grant to the world, and by extension, a world of global opportunities. Passportindex.org, for example, refers to this index as your ‘mobility score’, the total number of countries that can be easily visited with a given passport, based on visa-free, visa-on-arrival and similar schemes. Whether for business or tourism, Western passports from North America and Europe have remained firmly at the top of these charts since their conception, while regardless of education, income or qualification, people from those countries unable to move up in the indexes face a daunting stack of challenges often referred to as ‘passport poverty’.
According to the same index, the world’s most powerful passport currently belongs to nationals of the United Arab Emirates, the same place where self-identified global citizen Farooqi operates her corporate sustainability and social responsibility consultancy, among the glittering hotels and towering skyscrapers of Dubai. According to a 2018 census, more than 90 per cent of the desert city’s three-million-population is expatriate, with large numbers hailing from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Quite simply, the city’s population is more international than not, and this global composition is reflected in its economy. Annually, Dubai does around £212 billion in foreign trade and is one of the most visited cities in the world.
In 2018, it attracted nearly 16 million tourists. “There’s a very strategically planned, well-thought-out package on behalf of the Dubai government that really does make you feel like the world is coming to you,” Farooqi told Truly Belong.
Therefore, Dubai is for many a poster child of the opportunities that beckon when a place opens its doors to an expatriate workforce. However, it currently does not issue citizenship to residents aside from a few, rare exceptional circumstances.
The residents here are mostly economic migrants, people from around the world who’ve left their home country to seek work elsewhere. Yet, considering the city’s almost uniquely international identity, these residents — a host of people who may very well exemplify global citizenship — are no more exempt from the trials of passport limitations than anyone else.
Ipshita Sharma, an Indian national now residing in Dubai, looks back on a career in sales management “haunted” by passport poverty. She explains the problems of facing visa applications every time she needed to travel, even to regions like Europe which she had visited extensively before. She says passport poverty has made doing business “difficult and cumbersome.”
Ipshita Sharma, an Indian national now residing in Dubai, looks back on a career in sales management “haunted” by passport poverty.
She explains the problems of facing visa applications every time she needed to travel, even to regions like Europe which she had visited extensively before. She says passport poverty has made doing business “difficult and cumbersome.”
This feeling climaxed when Sharma worked as an international sales manager for a massive multinational’s entire Middle East division.
When relocation and a promotion became available in the UK, instead of being moved into the position as expected, Sharma was let go.
“There were strong hints,” she explains when asked if this was due to the restrictions presented by her Indian passport. Sharma was told that work visas for her passport were too expensive and weren’t an investment the company wanted to consider. Sharma said she felt her singular expertise and experience was overlooked because of the nationality of the passport she carried.
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This shows how passport poverty poses a litany of obstacles, some as detrimental as potentially closing o access to networking opportunities, internal business meetings, and partner and client liaisons. In a media o ce, for example, press trips frequently become the perk of employees with more ‘valuable’ passports simply by way of convenience for the companies involved, resulting in increased opportunities for coverage and bylines.
Less tangible, but no less important, benefits are lost too. “Going to a place with a different culture can help employees develop new ideas, see things with a new perspective, and ultimately become better thinkers and workers,” business consultant Larry Alton, writes for Forbes.
As a business owner, Farooqi, like Sharma, has faced these issues. She was once a US resident who had invested time and money into attaining a coveted American passport, which according to various indexes ranks in the top ten most powerful for its visa-free travel opportunities. However, she decided later to not get her US citizenship and solely rely on the passport of her ethnic background, Pakistan. This decision was personal for Farooqi, and she chose to not disclose it to Truly Belong.
Nevertheless, the decision came with its own challenges. “It has been a hindrance in delivering services because clients still like facetime, so not being able to visit them when they want is a barrier,” she says. The Pakistani passport currently sits at fourth to last out of 199 countries on the passport poverty index, followed by Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, Farooqi’s passport has limited her access to her biggest market, Saudi Arabia, and the expensive visas she requires to travel to the Kingdom impacts her business’ viability.
Regardless, Farooqi continues to attempt developing strategies to overcome travel barriers, like switching to virtual connectivity as a substitute for face-to-face interaction. “I’ve conducted entire projects virtually with people on the phone,” she says, “some of them are open to that.”
Read also: The Pandemic is Taking its Toll on Expats in the UAE
As an employee, however, Sharma feels more helpless. “If a company cannot invest in a visa for you, even though you have brought millions to that company, what else can you expect from them,” she says.
In her story is a strong message: establishing support, whether it be a travel fund, or an HR department better equipped to tackle the complications of passport restrictions, is an investment in making employees feel valued. Multiple psychology studies suggest that workers treated as such add value to the business and this basic tenet of good business aside, the bene ts of workplace diversity are easily confirmed. A study by the Boston Consulting Group looked at 1,700 companies across eight countries and found that “increasing the diversity of leadership teams leads to more and better innovation and improved nancial performance” and precipitates a boost to the bottom line that’s worth making accommodations for.
It’s paradoxical that the very documents meant to facilitate travel nonetheless have whole nations of people shut out of the global game. Yet, while Sharma identities with the notion of ‘passport poverty’, and sees it as directly impacting her professional advancement, Farooqi argues that the phrase is problematic. Many like herself, she points out, continues to choose the colour of their passport regardless of financial or business concerns. Still, she expresses frustration at the innate bias at work in the world.
“People are very curious about where you’re from and what your passport is, and while it’s an indicator for various life experiences, it’s not a very good indicator of your professional merit,” she says. It is a salient point, as the progress that globalisation promises can only truly reach its full potential when its players are entirely free to shape it, and until all passports are recognised as what they are, just travel documents, some global citizens will continue to be left behind.
*Truly Belong is using a pseudonym for Farooqi because she does not want to use her real name.
This story first appeared in the 2021 print issue of Truly Belong under the title “Passport Poverty”.
- Travel Limitations are Leaving Global Citizens Behind - 11th February 2021