The Henley Visa Restriction Index
ranks countries across the world according to their citizens’ ability to cross border and enter freely into other states’ territories. Ever since a graph in the Economist
based on its 2010 findings caught my eye a couple of months ago, I keep returning to the list. Its rankings confirm that money certainly can by you freedom: the top ten (whose citizens face the fewest visa restrictions) reads like a who’s who of Western Europe, North America and Australasia. The bottom of the list reads like a roll-call of human misery: Somalia, Sudan , Iraq, Afghanistan.
This massive inequality in humanity’s freedom to move is depressingly predictable. Weak, conflict-ridden and impoverished states and their citizens have few international friends. But thinking more deeply about the numbers involved, I think they hint at a few other truths that migration and asylum policy-makers would do well to remember.
First, asylum-seekers who use smuggling routes to enter states of refuge are often greeted with suspicion – irregular entry being taken as near-proof of “bogus” illegal intentions. But take a look at those figures for Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Iraq – these citizens can not move easily and legally across borders in search of sanctuary. It’s no coincidence either that these are the countries with the highest number of restrictions: plenty of research
shows that states deliberately impose visa restrictions in order to make it harder for refugees – those fleeing persecution and in need of international protection – to arrive and claim asylum.
By making it more difficult for the citizens of conflict states to leave, countries who impose visa restrictions don’t break their obligation under international law
not to “refoul”, or turn back, those asylum-seekers whose lives and freedoms may be threatened in their country of origin. But it’s a cynical adherence to the letter and not the spirit of the law, because it denies their right to seek asylum in the first place.
Second, citizens’ freedom of movement – human mobility – is clearly a measure of development. We’ve long recognized that internal freedom of movement is a fundamental human right, but international mobility clearly correlates with wealth and democratic government. The trouble is, these “liberal” democratic governments’ doublethink means that even as we become ever more connected to the “haves”, we’re intent on shutting out the “have nots”. But if we’re serious about development, expanding human mobility has to be part of the answer.
And a final, speculative thought. The UK actually tops the list for 2010. Every British citizen can visit 166 states visa-free. This means that few of us have any personal experience of the bureaucratic application processes, anxious waiting and frequent humiliations that are involved in asking for the visa that might allow us to visit relatives, attend a conference – or just experience the joys of travel. Let alone any real comprehension of what it means to not be able to move freely. And I suspect that this lack of awareness – this lack of thought – feeds into our lack of empathy for those citizens in other corners of the world who have to endure such expensive, time-consuming and arbitrary processes. We just don’t realise how lucky we are.