I’m in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and I flag down a taxi. After explaining my destination and haggling a bit for a price, I get in. I’m playing on my phone – checking Google Maps to make sure we’re going in the right direction and texting my friends that I’m on my way. The driver strikes up a conversation. “Where are you from – Germany?”. “No, I’m from Canada” I reply. He smiles and says he LOVES Canada.
The situation above happened to me almost daily when living in Ghana. The last statement was usually followed by some version of the following three scenarios:
1) How do I get to Canada – can you help me with a visa?
2) I have a cousin/brother/aunt/etc… who lives in Canada. It’s so beautiful there. I’m going to go one day when…
3) You should marry me so I can come to Canada!
I had a number of different responses depending on my mood, including how cold Canada was, that I have a boyfriend who lives there (who isn’t 100% white, which shocked them – but that’s a different story for a different day), or that yes, Canada is a very nice place to live (with a bit of a geography lesson about the different parts of the country). At first it annoyed me. How dare they ask to marry someone they just met, and don’t even pretend it’s for a reason other than personal gain (getting a Canadian visa)? But after awhile I started to get it. In many “developing countries” there is a serious lack of opportunities for work, good school, and other public services. Why wouldn’t they want to do whatever they could to make a “better life” for them and their families by moving to a “developed country”?
Even if they have enough money to travel, most Ghanaians can’t easily get a visa for a country like Canada. They need to prove tons of things, like how much money is in their bank account (so they can pay for their own expenses), that they’re not at risk of staying in Canada forever (by proving ties to the community), that they have a good job (even though many people in Ghana work in the informal economy), etc. Even after providing all the paperwork, they often have to jump through many more hoops, like in-person interviews, invitation letters, etc. In fact, people often only tell their families that they’re moving away about a week before they leave. Although the process of getting a visa takes many months/years, they know that it’s not a sure thing. They don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, so they wait until it’s finalized to tell everyone. Conversely, when a Canadian wants to go to Ghana, it’s pretty easy for them to pop-up to an embassy, provide a few easy documents (passport, photos, return flight information, etc.), and be on the flight 2 weeks later. This is what some people would call “passport privilege”.
Note: This post expands on some of the ideas that I covered in a previous blog “Is travelling classist? I certainly don’t think so!”, which looked mostly at people from “western” countries (North America, Europe, etc.) but didn’t really touch on the realities of people from other countries which have a lot more travel restrictions places upon them.
Being able to travel to countries on a different continent is a major privilege. In many “developing countries” it can be pretty easy to travel to nearby countries. For example, in South America, Bolivians can travel without a passport to Brazil and Argentina, and visa versa, which makes travelling a lot more accessible. Many African and Asian countries have similar group agreements for their citizens, since many need to cross the border to visit family, work, etc. However, they don’t have the same ease if they wanted to go to another continent. People from North America and Europe, on the other hand, pretty much have free-rein of almost anywhere in the world they want to go on vacation.
The Canadian Passport is ranked one of the best in the world. Not only can we get into over 172 countries without a visa (or with visa on arrival), we also have a lot of love around the world. In my experience, when people see a Canadian passport they immediately act nicer than how other people are treated around me. Except in countries where Canadian mining interests are exploiting the resources/people (but I digress…) most countries have favourable views of Canada and Canadians as being nice, which works out well for a travelling as a Canadian.
Many Canadians and Americans complain on travel sites about high visa fees for various countries (like over $100 for a visa into Argentina, for example) while Europeans can get in for free. However, most of these fees are a type of “reciprocity fee”. This means that because the citizens of Argentina have an expensive visa process to get into Canada, the government of Argentina is going to charge high fees to Canadians in return – which seems pretty fair to me. Honestly, I hate when a rich European on a gap year financed by their parents complains about $100 being too expensive for a few weeks in a new country. Suck it up – you can obviously afford it, especially since you probably spent that much drinking at the club last weekend alone.
This doesn’t even get me started on the issues of refugees. Many people from Syria, for example, were not poor beggars before the war started, they were wealthy doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers. However, because of where they’re from, they’re not allowed to just hop on a plane to a new country. That’s why so many people pay a lot of money to human smugglers to bring them across borders or across the sea to the hope of a new life. If countries changed their policies to allow refugees to come to a country by legal means to apply for asylum, there would a lot less people dying or being horribly treated on the way to a new country for the hope that their families could survive and thrive. Very high restrictions lead people to take drastic measures – with horrible consequences.
In a similar fashion, the United States is very strict about workers from Mexico. They take away temporary work programs, which forces people to enter the United States through illegal means. Many of these workers don’t actually want to live in America, they simply want to go work and bring money back for their family. But the farms and factories of the United States rely on super-low wage workers, and most Americans refuse to work for such low pay. However, the laws regarding immigration only punish the illegal workers, with almost no penalties for the companies relying on those workers to pick crops or other heavy-labour, low-wage work.
Immigration is a very complex issue (that I obviously can’t fully cover here in one blog). Whether leaving your country for work or travel, there are many different issues to consider. International travel is definitely a privilege, one that I’ve been really lucky to enjoy over the past few years. I’m so grateful to be a Canadian, and to be able to enjoy very minimal restrictions on my movements from foreign governments.