My Invisible Visa

Little known fact about the developing world #23: your friends can’t visit you. Citizens of the developed world generally know that immigration is restricted, that a random African (for example) can’t just move to a rich country and call it home. What most people don’t know is that, for the most part, the world’s billions cannot even come and visit.

The United States of America has of course become secretive and paranoid after 9/11, so I’ve used my home country of Canada as an illustrative example. A government web page lists those countries whose citizens require visas in order to enter Canada. This is not to live or work in Canada, but merely to visit. I’ve summarized the results on a map. People from the blue places need a visa for entry.

Countries for which a visa is required to visit Canada

As you can see, most of the people in the world can’t simply show up at the airport for a visit.

Naturally, there is a procedure for obtaining a Canadian tourist visa. One goes to the nearest Canadian Embassy, typically in your capital city, for a visa application and interview. This is not a mere formality. As this Canadian government web page notes,

All applicants wishing to visit Canada must satisfy an officer that they will leave Canada by the end of the period authorized for the stay, that they will not contravene the conditions of admission (for example, that they will not study or work without prior authorization), and that they do not belong in a category of persons inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

In reaching a decision, an officer considers several factors, which may include:

  • the applicant’s travel and identity documents;
  • the reason for travel to Canada and the applicant’s contacts there;
  • the applicant’s financial means for the trip;
  • the applicant’s ties to his or her country of residence, including immigration status, employment and family ties;
  • whether the applicant would be likely to leave Canada at the end of the authorized stay.

This means you wait in line with a hundred other brown undesirables. This means you borrow money from your friends, family, or loan-shark moneylenders for that single-day bank statement that shows you much richer than you actually are. This means you make up reasons, swap stories and superstitions, and hope. Not all that many visas are issued per year, and maybe, just maybe, you can get away from your poor country, where everyone is starving / where the war is on / where you can’t possibly make a living. In Canada, you can become one of those people who works a good job and remits money each month to support your family back home. Sure, you won’t have a work permit, sure, you’re supposed to go back home in two weeks, but that can be sorted out later. The first step is just getting there, isn’t it? So please, Ganesh. I implore you, Allah– let me say the right thing to the stony-faced guardian of the borders when my turn comes. Let me be one of that fraction of a percent whose visas are granted.

The walls and telephone poles near every first-world embassy are papered with ads for shady immigration services.

But me, white first-worlder, I don’t have this problem. As a Canadian citizen, I can go to any of the blue countries whenever the whim takes me. I need visas too, of course, but that’s a sure thing, a birthright. I can walk into just about any embassy in the world, fill out a form, pay a fee, and arrange a trip to where ever I want to go. My developing world friends cannot; Baba and Shai and Mohammed can never come to visit me. Most of the world’s people are effectively trapped in their country of birth.

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