Bureaucratic borders and inequality: reflections from a paperwork day

Sometimes – unlikely as it may seem – real life and my research collide. Take me to an immigration checkpoint, ask me for my passport and I’ll immediately become a cross between an investigative journalist and a philosopher, trying to work out who’s paying – and who’s profiting.

But if the question ‘what are borders for?’ is a source of endless fascination to me, the question ‘what are visas for’ tends to be a source of endless frustration instead. And this week, I embarked upon the Indian Visa Application Process. It was a day which ended up revealing a lot about the papers that regulate our rights to travel and ensure that it’s only the rich who have the right to move.
Indian bureaucracy is in a special category of its own when it comes to forms-filled-in-triplicate, so I was reasonably well-prepared for the questions about my mother’s, father’s and spouse’s birthplaces. But India has now managed to hold onto the colonial controls of the Raj’s paperwork and combine them with that 21st century bureaucrat’s dream, outsourcing. Pay an extra £7.00 so VFS Global can process the forms by taking them to the High Commission for you.  In fact, apply for any visa and it’s increasingly likely VFS Global will be the ones handling the paperwork
Visas make money; they are also a paper statement of the state’s power to exclude (at least in legal terms). But – when everyone is forced to apply – there’s nothing effective about any security screening. Two days after I handed over the forms, my 50mm*50mm photos (eight pound coins slotted into the ageing photo booth for two photos), and perhaps most importantly of all my credit card, I now have a visa. The information I entered into the painful online system will sit on file: almost certainly unread, unchecked and unnecessary.
This started me thinking: maybe every cosseted Western tourist, grown spoilt on Schengen areas and ESTA visa waivers, should be made to apply for an Indian visa. After all, the minor inconvenience is at least a pale comparison of the hoops we make other foreign nationals jump through to come here, only with added humiliation, disruption and cost. The irritation I felt was partly because I’m unused to anyone presuming even for a moment that I don’t have the right to travel to their country. A bureaucratic, inefficient charade it may be. But it at least made me pause to remember my Guatemalan Spanish teacher’s humiliation at being turned down by the US Embassy for a travel visa when she wanted to visit her ageing mother (being cared for by her US-resident sister), colleagues who have fought for years to cut their way out of paper prisons so husbands and fathers have leave to remain in the UK.
On my way home from the Visa Application Centre, I read about Teresa May’s plans to interview100,000 students coming to the UK. Another hoop. Additional cost. A logic that just collecting information allows better decision-making – even if the information threatens to overwhelm an already over-burdened student visa system. So you spend more money to check public money isn’t being wasted: and then you put up the visa fees to cover the cost of administration. The result? Travel (let alone studying abroad) is yet more the preserve of the wealthy. And the people you want to keep out – the pseudo-students? Quite a few will find another way in, negotiating their way through the shadow migration economies. While quite a few genuine students – fee-paying, economic contributors – will go elsewhere.
Of course bureaucratic borders have many functions. They make profits for those selling the passes: they are a visible sign of state power. But they offer little real “protection” from the types of “abuse” that is supposed to haunt our nightmares. Because organised crime has money. And most importantly of all, paperwork and visa costs reinforce economic inequalities. The rich can travel. The poor cannot.
This is dangerous. Because even as the link between migration opportunities and inequality is increasingly clearsee this Milanovic paper for their take on it – it’s being made increasingly difficult for the poor to migrate legally. May may be prepared to simplify the Chinese visa, but then that’s economic prophecy too. And visas and paper borders don’t just reinforce these economic inequalities – they reinforce them – by making it impossible for the poor to move in search of legitimate opportunity.
At home: an envelope in the post box. My Canadian passport had arrived. And if ever a sign of how arbitrary the right to travel has become, how our entitlements to passports bear little resemblance to need or national belonging, here it is. A stark reminder that many people have sold their souls in search of one of these Western passports. Many people have died. And here I have not one, but two. It’s manifestly arbitrary and unfair, but the gap between citizenship rights and freedom of movement isn’t about national identity: it’s about rich and poor.
So in the end, a paperwork day turned out to be the research question I want to focus on in 2013 confronted as a personal dilemma. For shouldn’t we stop worrying about the people who can move, and focus instead on those who – trapped by economic segregation – can’t go anywhere, even if they want to?