Passports, power and privilege

On the side of one column in London’s Migration Museum is a list of countries, ordered by their ‘Global Passport Power Rank’. At just 4 foot 3 (and a half!), I can barely see Germany at the top, or the UK in 12th.[1] But here I stand, confronted by my privilege. It is all the more striking as I make way down the list to find the South East Asian countries I’m about to travel to.

The Passport Power Index collects, displays and ranks the passports of the world by the power they give the bearer to travel across borders. Rankings are based on the number of countries that can be entered either visa-free or with visas-on-arrival, the proportion of visa-free to visa-on-arrival and – all else being equal – the countries UN Human Development Index (taken as an indicator of the passport’s reputational value).

The privileged access my British passport provides is not a new realisation. It is often only when confronted by an others’ inability to travel – an Iranian colleagues inability to attend that US conference, a Gambian friend’s dream to one day travel to the UK, or a refused asylum-seeker now in limbo – or when faced with the possibility of new restrictions on travel (as with Brexit), that we realise our own privileged mobility. As one report put it, “A Briton moving abroad is seen as part of the natural order of things.”

As an inherently imperial nation, Britain was built on emigration as much as immigration. For centuries, Britons moved across the world, conquering, settling and extracting from the places they went and from 1815 to 1914 an estimated 22.6 million people left the British Isles. Briton’s presumed right to move across space has long been part of the British psyche, part of what was, and in many ways still is, a thoroughly imperial mentality. As Professors Hall and Rose explain, British people thought imperially, “not in the sense of political affiliations for or against empire, but simply assuming it was there, part of the given world that had made them who they were.” As Britain’s emigrants spread and laid roots across the globe – a processes that was often far from benevolent – the idea of a “British world” or “transnational brotherhood” took hold. Within this world it was the British that moved.[2]

The idea that British people have, and will continue to have, the freedom to move is evident in some of the debates about Brexit. However, Britons’ relative privilege within “regimes of mobility” is not only about having a British passport. As Dr Michaela Benson suggests, “the mobility of the British is enhanced by and not dependent on European Union membership.” EU citizenship is, in other words, merely one component of wider “constellations of privilege,” within which the white and the western are granted most privileged.

While “a Briton moving abroad is seen as part of the natural order of things,” this is limited primarily to white Britons. Again, Benson explains, that “crossing borders with ease is the normative experience for white British middle-class people, an expectation that is deeply habituated.” This embodied and habituated right to move is all the more visible since Britain’s vote to leave the EU in 2016.

As a British passport holder (now down in 17th place), there are 159 countries that I can go to either visa-free or by registering for a visa on arrival. For Thais, the figure falls to 75, for Indonesians 70, for Laotians the figure is 50 countries, the Burmese just 43. These are also places that have borne the brunt of Britain’s meddling over the years, most pertinent today Britain’s policy of encouraging immigration of Royningha into Burma (now Myanmar). There are undeniable histories to our disparate mobilities.

Despite the long-histories and mass-nature of British emigration, an overwhelming sense remains of Britain as a place people immigrate to rather than emigrate from. As a result of this (mis)conception, and a general lack of acknowledgement of British emigration as migration, British people’s relatively privilege, in terms of mobility, is obscured. This makes it possible for some Britons to construct themselves as victims of immigration, rather than historical beneficiaries of global mobility.

The “postcolonial continuities” – that is, the reflection of early-20th century colonialism in the present mobility regime – are not lost on me as I set out on three months travel. As a young white British woman, I will be using the privilege afforded to me by my British passport (as well as my ‘race’, my relative socio-economic position, sexuality, able-bodiedness… the list goes on), to travel to places and visit people whose freedom to travel is far lower than my own. Moreover, in travelling east to ‘experience’ the ‘other’ in his/her local context, I risk reinforcing the historic exoticisation and commodification of those ‘others’, as well as the racialised hierarchies that got me there, hierarchies that also play out in the stereotype of the white western traveller.

The fact is that when we travel, we travel within wider structures of power and privilege. I may not feel privileged, or even be particularly privileged in all parts of my life, but within the global (and neoliberal) migration structures, my white skin and British passport give me an undeniably privileged ability to move. It is important to recognise these inequalities and the work they do in reproducing a world in which the white and western is not only more free to move, but in which the hierarchy of entitlement so clearly laid out in the ‘Global Passport Power Ranking’ is reproduced as “common-sense”.


Further reading/watching

Geographies of Privilege by France Winddance Twine and Bradley Gardener (2013, Routledge)

The global mobility divide:  How  visa policies  have evolved over  time by Steffan Mau,  Fabian Gulzau, Lene Laube and Natascha Zaun (2015).


[1] These figures, and the images, relate to figures from 2017.

[2] That this was the case is clear in the lack of concern given to the idea that the black and brown citizens of the Empire would come to the British Isles (a point well-made by Professor Gurminder Bhambra).

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