Only a country as complacent as the UK could give up its border privilege so easily

Only a country as complacent as the UK could give up its border privilege so easily

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Whenever I’m flying with someone who’s a laid-back traveler — someone who’ll arrive just before check-in closes and then sit down and eat a full breakfast while I’m nearing meltdown — I’ll tease them with something I call “border privilege.” “ name. Likely the laid-back traveler was born with access to a passport that has a high ‘rank of power’.

If you don’t know what that is, you’re in luck because you probably hold a passport that ranks high in the Henley Passport Index – a global ranking of countries in terms of travel freedom that enjoy their passports. The higher your passport rank, the more “border privilege” you have — that is, the ability to cross national borders with a sense of excitement at best and mild anger at the inconveniences of travel at worst.

As the reality of Brexit bites and post-lockdown international travel increases, Brits will find out a few things about border privilege – namely, what happens if you lose it. Only a nation that viewed freedom of travel as a right could have thrown it away so recklessly. Those who didn’t grow up with border privileges can tell you that traveling without them is an obstacle course; something for which you gird your loins, for which you prepare dossiers of documents, for which you say several Ave Marys and inshallahs.

Passports at the top of the Henley Index allow the holder to visit nearly 200 countries without obtaining a visa in advance. Those further down the road, like the Sudanese I was born with, have to go through the eye of a needle before they can enter most countries. Applicants face almost insurmountable walls of bureaucracy and distrust, hilarious demands for paperwork, and often humiliation and rejection.

For a long time I was so afraid that the 11am trip would fall through that I wouldn’t make any plans until I was firmly on the other side of the border. I booked tickets at the very last minute at exorbitant cost when I was sure it was too late for anything to go wrong. I’ve had visa applications that extended beyond the date I was supposed to travel for weeks and months, missed sick relatives’ hospital beds, friends and family’s celebrations, and too many work and education opportunities for me to bear to keep up with to estimate.

A low-ranking pass means its holder is in constant danger of falling through trapdoors in the middle of a journey. A visa detail overlooked by a border guard meant that, having just landed in Riyadh, I was called into a room full of angry Saudi border guards who berated me for the oversight and sent me back on the next flight. I wasn’t allowed to leave the airport until I paid the fare for the return flight, which took all my cash. Another time, without explanation and without recourse, I was dragged into secondary processing in the US, where I was left with no information or updates for so long that some form of illegal imprisonment was likely to occur.

Since 2016, the British passport has fallen from shared first place in the index to sixth. With that comes a new reality that is already being ominously dubbed the “new normal.” Travel to and within Europe is becoming unpredictable, costly and generally involves more of the series of hurdles that others are used to. Introducing a single stamp to enter the EU sounds like a small thing, but it triggers hours of queues, and then the domino effect begins – missed connections, missing bags, refund mazes.

In this new reality, permanence is gone. What you need to enter France is different than what you need to enter Spain. The latter recently confirmed that UK visitors may need proof of sufficient funds to cover your stay, a return flight ticket and proof of accommodation. Regardless of the requirements, the adequacy of your evidence is to be assessed by a single guard who is the entire border. You will understand that all travel authorizations, both those that only require a stamp and those that require a complicated visa process, are subject to different versions of the same short sentence that is usually appended to entry authorizations and disclaimers on travel information packs: “This is not final Entry visa, a border officer can still refuse entry.”

Someone with a low ranking passport will tell you that in all interactions with that border guard it is imperative that you heed their advice, knowing that for the next few minutes that guard holding your passport is the most powerful person in your life . You’re a sovereign, they can make or repeal laws there on the spot, and possibly bankrupt you financially. Even when things are bad, you must always remember that things can get a lot worse.

Related: Brexit is a flop and voters know it. So why can’t Labor demand closer ties with Europe? | Roy Hattersley

In all situations, you must calm yourself by repeating an incantation to remind you that you are lucky: lucky to have come this far; lucky to even have the paperwork and funds to travel; lucky that you have the dexterity and physical ability to overcome an unexpected obstacle; and lucky that the worst you’re likely to face is a sore ego and wallet rather than imprisonment or deportation.

I relate these experiences without resentment. I once sat, wincing, in a wheelchair next to a trembling elderly South Asian woman while she was being yelled at in secondary processing at a US airport because she couldn’t speak enough English to answer questions about who she was visiting. Whatever her family had done to secure her entry into the country had been undone by a single new arbitrary demand.

The most important lesson you will learn is that border guards may not know the law and yet have infinite powers. They may be ill-informed, under-resourced, or unable to keep up with changes in border policies. and yet they are part of a border surveillance machinery so vast and chaotic that your mistreatment and mistakes are swallowed up in their turmoil.

For British travelers, however, there is an extra kick. Their complaints are then trivialized by Brexit evangelists. You will be told that these are small sacrifices, the grievances of a privileged few in the midst of a livelihood crisis in a country trying to regain control of its own borders and economic destiny that cannot afford or navigate vacations to our next, cheapest neighbor to reach is a “first world” problem.

But in the end what is clear, as with all Brexit fallout, is that the benefits we have lost can be reclaimed by those who have most – the fast lanes, travel insurance, funds and time. For the rest of us, I recommend putting together a paper dossier of receipts, arriving at the airport very early, and whenever frustration or panic overcomes you, remember that it could always be worse.

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