Esquire (Philippines) - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Clin­ton PALANCA Art by Lala GAL­LARDO

Re­flec­tions on the most pow­er­ful piece of pa­per you will ever own: your pass­port.


years by Claro M. Recto, then the Min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs, to Jose Var­gas, am­bas­sador to Ja­pan, and was marked with the se­rial num­ber “1”. Since then, the pass­port has shrunk from the size of a small hard­bound Bi­ble to the in­ter­na­tional stan­dard size, and is now a bur­gundy book­let bristling with se­cu­rity fea­tures and an RF-ac­ces­si­ble mi­crochip on the last page.

Sev­enty-four years af­ter that first is­sue, the Philip­pine pass­port cur­rently ranks 76th in the an­nual Visa Re­stric­tion In­dex pub­lished by Hen­ley and Part­ners. This is a fairly poor rank­ing among the 104 pass­ports sur­veyed out of 196 coun­tries—the sur­vey leaves out many of the smaller coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries, in­clud­ing the Vat­i­can (the Pope does have a diplo­matic pass­port from the Holy See, in case you’re won­der­ing, but chooses to travel as an Ar­gen­tinian cit­i­zen). Trav­el­ing the world looks very dif­fer­ent to some­one hold­ing a Ger­man pass­port—cur­rently the most pow­er­ful pass­port—to a Philip­pine pass­port holder, though we don’t have it as bad as Afghanistan, which cur­rently holds the bot­tom slot.

This means that for us, travel is rarely a spon­ta­neous pur­suit; by Jan­uary, most trav­el­ers plan­ning a sum­mer break are be­gin­ning the nervewrack­ing ac­tiv­ity of com­pil­ing and pho­to­copy­ing doc­u­ments and filling out long and point­less forms. Have you ever en­gaged in ter­ror­ism? Have you ever traf­ficked arms or nu­clear weapons? List ev­ery trip you have ever taken in the last ten years. (One con­sulate re­quired “proof of birth”;

ap­par­ently the fact that I was stand­ing there in front of them was not proof enough.) And all of that is for one coun­try’s con­sular sec­tion, which will hold your pass­port hostage un­til they is­sue the visa, af­ter which you move on to the next—if they have a con­sulate in the Philip­pines. Th­ese days you can ap­ply for a visa to Botswana by post­ing your pass­port to Ja­pan, but I ap­plied from South Africa, and spent a fort­night lurch­ing from one vine­yard to another in the wine coun­try un­til I re­ceived a call from the em­bassy that my pass­port had been stamped with the ap­pro­pri­ate visa.

The ori­gins of the pass­port are usu­ally traced to the doc­u­ments is­sued by sov­er­eigns that en­sured “right of safe pas­sage” when trav­el­ing through for­eign ter­ri­to­ries: it was, in essence, a letter from my king to your king say­ing that he vouched for me, and also if any­thing hap­pens to him you’re go­ing to hear about it. The real pass­port as we know it was in­vented dur­ing the First World War, when Europe was al­ready con­nected by rail but bor­ders were por­ous and peo­ple moved about freely. Its pur­pose was, as it is to­day, to stop spies from cross­ing into home ter­ri­tory. By its na­ture it was meant to im­pede, rather than ex­pe­di­ate, travel, and in that ca­pac­ity it con­tin­ues the tra­di­tion to­day, more than ever.

Most of trav­el­ing is not spent atop moun­tain peaks or in eat­ing at fancy restau­rants or lux­u­ri­at­ing in bub­ble baths, but wait­ing; and much of this wait­ing will be be­hind bor­der con­trol desks. The ra­tio­nale be­hind visas is that they pro­vide se­cu­rity from ter­ror­ism and are a means to screen against il­le­gal im­mi­grants. While th­ese are valid con­cerns, the re­quire­ment (or lack thereof ) for visas also not-so-sub­tly re­wards cit­i­zens of rich coun­tries and pe­nal­izes, of­ten in an un­nec­es­sar­ily hu­mil­i­at­ing way, cit­i­zens of coun­tries that the world con­sid­ers less de­sir­able. Any­one who has queued in the sun out­side the U.S. Em­bassy on Roxas Boule­vard will un­der­stand this. The French em­bassy in Lon­don seemed to take an al­most sadis­tic plea­sure in see­ing the long line of African, Chi­nese, and Filipino ap­pli­cants hud­dling in the cold on the pave­ment out­side the con­sulate in Kens­ing­ton, al­most as if it were an ex­hibit to show all the passers-by how much suf­fer­ing we were will­ing to en­dure in or­der to en­ter their great and glo­ri­ous republique. Now the in­hu­mane has been ex­changed for the preda­tory: VFS, a com­pany to which many con­sulates have out­sourced the pri­mary stages of visa pro­cess­ing, will give you comfy chairs, a sooth­ing bev­er­age, and hap­pily take your money for “pre­mium ser­vices.”

The process is all the more irk­some be­cause the ev­i­dence that visas can pro­tect against ter­ror­ism re­mains un­con­vinc­ing. All that oner­ous col­la­tion of bank state­ments and em­ploy­ment records doesn’t feel like it would de­ter ter­ror­ists, and it doesn’t, re­ally. Although it pro­vides an ini­tial screen­ing by tap­ping into var­i­ous data­bases, this could equally well be done at the bor­der. Air­lines, ho­tels, and other pri­vate en­ti­ties are also opt­ing into the In­ter­pol’s I-Checkit pro­gramme, which im­me­di­ately flags travel doc­u­ments con­nected to ter­ror­ists, child sex of­fend­ers, or in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions, as well as those which have been re­ported as lost or stolen. The ma­jor­ity of the ques­tions on a visa ap­pli­ca­tion form are ac­tu­ally screen­ing for il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion: what they are try­ing to find out is whether af­ter tak­ing in the sights, try­ing the local restau­rants, and buy­ing sou­venirs, you will get on that plane and go back home.

The best way of es­tab­lish­ing this, un­for­tu­nately, is by check­ing your fi­nances. Coun­tries like the U.S., the UK, and those in the Schen­gen area of Europe are highly at­trac­tive to Filipinos (and other poor coun­tries’ mi­grants), so they are keen to es­tab­lish that you have a job that pays well and that you will re­turn to that job, or that you are in­de­pen­dently wealthy and there’s no rea­son for you to go un­der­ground and be­come a dish­washer in Chi­na­town. It also means that those who get visas are the kind tourists that most coun­tries like: the rich ones who will spend money they earned in their home coun­tries to in­fuse the local econ­omy with cash. Tak­ing a “gap year” af­ter high school and be­fore univer­sity to back­pack around the world dur­ing a for­ma­tive mo­ment in their lives is a priv­i­lege of young­sters from rich coun­tries—and chil­dren of rich par­ents in poor coun­tries. On the other hand, how­ever, we have to come to terms with the fact that the Philip­pine pass­port is re­garded with sus­pi­cion for a rea­son. Our record with re­gard to il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion has not ex­actly been spot­less. We ha­bit­u­ally flout the rule about not work­ing on a tourist visa: get­ting paid to do some mod­el­ling, sell­ing art­work, re­ceiv­ing renu­mer­a­tion for any­thing at all, in­clud­ing bang­ing bongo drums in the sub­way for coins, counts as work.

We live in a time when walls are go­ing up rather than com­ing down, and this ap­plies not just to refugees and mi­grants but to tourists as well. In times of prosperity, coun­tries, like busi­nesses, tend to merge and con­sol­i­date; and in times of re­ces­sion they split up. The heady years of the late 20th cen­tury saw the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many; in 1995 the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Schen­gen agree­ment which made trav­el­ling to Europe much, much eas­ier; and in 1999 the euro sup­planted most of the EU mem­ber states’ cur­ren­cies. Times of cri­sis tend to re­sult in balka­niza­tion, with the Balkans prior to the First World War be­ing an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple as well as be­ing the et­y­mol­ogy of the term. While the U.S., the UK, Canada, the EU coun­tries, Aus­tralia, New Zealand, and Ja­pan will con­tinue to share data, Bri­tain’s exit from the EU and United States pres­i­dent Trump’s push for stricter bor­der con­trols will mean that the plight of the Filipino trav­eller to th­ese coun­tries will only get worse. At the time of writ­ing, the U.S. bor­der pol­icy is in a state of chaos, with le­git­i­mate trav­el­ers and le­gal res­i­dents be­ing turned away at the air­port. The push against ter­ror­ism and rad­i­cal­iza­tion also means that travel to Iran, Pak­istan, So­ma­lia, and other coun­tries as­so­ci­ated with Is­lamic ter­ror­ists will make get­ting a visa more dif­fi­cult—and you can be re­fused en­try at the dis­cre­tion of the bor­der con­trol of­fi­cer even if you have a valid visa. This ap­plies not just to the U.S., where you will be au­to­mat­i­cally be taken aside for sec­ondary scren­ing, but to most first-world coun­tries who are on edge.

There is so much pride and amour-pro­pre in­volved on our side in ap­ply­ing to travel, and so much para­noia and chest-thump­ing on the part of coun­tries re­quir­ing them. Yet most of the nail-bit­ing sus­pense and co­pi­ous pa­per­work re­quired to is­sue a visa are ul­ti­mately un­nec­es­sary. While there is a need to con­trol il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and flag ter­ror­ists, coun­tries lose out on bil­lions ev­ery year be­cause po­ten­tial tourists are put off need­lessly daunt­ing forms and bu­reau­cracy.

A nice mid­dle ground be­tween throw­ing open bor­ders al­to­gether and tor­tur­ing would-be vis­i­tors with twenty-page forms is the visaupon-ar­rival (ba­si­cally the same as a more in­ten­sive screen­ing at the air­port, ex­cept that they get to col­lect money), or an on­line ap­pli­ca­tion be­fore­hand, which is be­ing im­ple­mented by coun­tries like In­dia and

Tai­wan and Turkey. A quick in­ter­net search will throw up a list of coun­tries for which Filipinos don’t need a visa. Mon­go­lia, for in­stance, is a highly un­der­rated des­ti­na­tion—and their econ­omy could use the cash. Filipinos travel to Morocco, Brazil, and Kenya more than other neigh­bor­ing coun­tries that in­sist on a visa re­quire­ment. Rather than pros­trat­ing our­selves be­fore the con­sulates of coun­tries that make trav­el­ing harder than it al­ready is, we should bring the not-in­con­sid­er­able rev­enue of our tourist in­come to coun­tries which are more wel­com­ing.

Just as the trans­for­ma­tive ef­fects of travel re­main in your soul long af­ter you have re­turned home, the dif­fi­cul­ties of travel be­gin even be­fore you start pack­ing your bags. Part of the self-dis­cov­ery of trav­el­ing is find­ing out what you will travel as; and for most of us, it means trav­el­ing with the much-ma­ligned ma­roon pass­port that marks us as Filipino. If tak­ing pride in it is too much of a stretch, then learn­ing to ac­cept its lim­i­ta­tions and en­joy where it can take you is the next best thing.

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