You walk through border security, feeling a little nervous. You know – you know – there’s nothing in your bags, but still, the thoughts come. What if somebody had slipped something in? What if you’d accidentally brought a kitchen knife? What if? What if? You hand over your passport to the immigration officer. He flicks through it and nods, letting you pass. You breathe a sigh of relief. 

If your passport had been a different colour, they may not have nodded. If your passport was the same shade as those terrorists, they may have pulled you aside instead, holding your visa up to the light and asking if it’s real. 


Passports function as certificates of identity. The strength of a passport is determined by factors such as the stability of the nation and existing relationships between the country it was issued by and the one you’re travelling to. A ‘strong’ passport will allow its citizens entry into multiple countries without having to apply for a visa. Someone from the UK, for instance, has considerable freedom to jump between borders without worrying about their documents. 


And while this instrument is much needed in a globalised world, it also allows for systemic discrimination. Anne Moraa writes: ‘A good passport says the world is indeed yours.’ With a stronger passport, you can travel within a minute’s notice, whereas others may have to spend months gathering their medical checkups and certified papers. This creates a glaring gap for the globalised generation. It doesn’t matter if you have lived in a different country for a long time. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a security threat. 


Your nationality determines more than your cultural identity; it puts you in boxes to be easily classified by the looming eyes of the state. As long as you are a citizen of a ‘safe’ – which often means ‘white’ – country, you don’t have to worry about the eyes following you at security checkpoints in the airport. At the end of the day, your identity is decided by which country you hold citizenship in.


Indonesia’s passports can be considered relatively ‘weak’, but they’re not rock bottom, either. Applying for visas has been such a normalised process in my life that travelling anywhere without one is cause for surprise. At the same time, our passports don’t carry the same discrimination as ones from countries such as Syria and Pakistan. I was never worried I wouldn’t be allowed to travel because of the actions of my country.


Bill Mckibben states:

‘Privilege lies in obliviousness’. This is never truer than with passports.

If the system works for us, we look away. We don’t see the people who are caught in the gaps, who have to answer for their country’s mistakes. In ignoring this, we choose to perpetuate a system that dehumanises others and classifies them as threats or non-threats by things beyond their control.


Upon face value, when you’ve reached the point of receiving a visa, the struggle stops there. You’re free to travel. Surely that’s all that’s needed?


Visas are birthed in discrimination – one defined by the strength of our passports – but during the COVID-19 pandemic, the difference between visa-holders and citizens or permanent residents becomes even more pronounced. The recent JobKeeper scheme removes temporary visa workers from assistance, even though they make up a significant portion of the Australian workforce, especially in food and service industries. As this happens, thousands are left to fend for themselves. The Asylum Seekers Resource Centre (ASRC) notes that since the start of the pandemic, the amount of people requiring their help has doubled. 


In one of his speeches, Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses international students and visitor visa-holders by saying, “It is time… to make your way home.” This rhetoric echoes worldwide. For instance, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in America has issued a declaration that international students learning online will have to leave the country or face deportation, leaving them with an impossible choice to make.


At a time of crisis, a visa status becomes a way for a nation to separate the people it thinks are worth care and the ones it thinks are not. With cases increasing in home countries and borders being closed, leaving a host country may mean being locked out in the future. For international students, the question of leaving comes in hand with the question of being able to return when face-to-face classes resume. On top of that, there are still bills and running costs to pay for, and simply returning to one’s home country does not solve the issue of dwindling finances. 


In a way, every visa-holder looking for their ‘American dream’ on various shores are now having the door shut in their faces. While countries welcome us with open hands during prosperous times, the ever-glaring message during times of crisis is ‘you’re not welcome here’. When we see videos of racial attacks, we hear leaders piping up about how ‘that is not us’, then turn around and establish policies that deliberately exclude lawful, taxpaying residents from adequate welfare.


Being a rightful resident today only goes so far. Everything else depends on how you look, how you act, and how your papers identify you. There is always another step to take to be seen as equal in an ‘egalitarian’ society, and even then, it may never be enough. In a world defined by territorial borders and fear, we will always be defined by a system that classifies us as the ‘other’, the welcomed-but-not-so-welcome group of immigrants.