Migrations Why Do Borders and Passports Dictate What Country I Get to Call Home?
The contours of a border become a lot less rigid when you carry what are deemed to be the right documents.
On a frigid February morning in London, I was seated in a large oblong room in my local Town Hall. It was an institution I had always associated with civil marriage ceremonies. Newlyweds would stream out of the art deco building, flanked by friends and family, posing for photographs as cars whizzed by on the busy road.
I was not there to exchange vows or make solemn promises to eternity. I was here for a different life-altering event: a citizenship ceremony, my last step towards acquiring a British passport.
A group of us—people from Pakistan and Spain, Iran and Ecuador—were huddled in the room, awaiting further instructions. There was no visible excitement on most people’s faces. Instead, there was a ‘let’s just get on with it and head back to work’ kind of vibe.
We were directed to the Council Chamber, where the ceremony would be performed. After taking an oath of allegiance to the Crown and making a pledge to uphold the values and laws of the United Kingdom, my name was called out. I collected my certificate of naturalization, posed for a photograph in front of the Queen’s portrait, signed a piece of paper confirming I had received it, and sat back down.
The Algerian man sitting next to me congratulated me. Then, he got up and repeated the same exercise. All of us did.
I would probably never see this cohort of people again, yet we were partaking in a public rite of passage that was individually meaningful and collectively transformative. On that ordinary winter morning, we all crossed over from that amorphous state of non-belonging to legally becoming British.
I wondered about them and their journeys to get here: Did they wrestle with leaving loved ones behind in their homelands? Had they felt perpetually insecure that their education and careers could be upended by unpredictable visa rules? Were they angry when politicians were scapegoating immigrants to improve their electability in parts of the country? Had they experienced the holy trinity of fear, fury, and frustration that accompanies the reality of being an immigrant? I wondered if, like me, they would answer these questions with a resounding ‘yes.’
I was born and raised in Pakistan. I’ve spent the last seventeen years living in New York, Boston, Colombo, and, most recently, London. I arrived in London a decade ago for post-graduate studies. In the US, I was my parents’ dependent; their jobs afforded me the privilege to study and live there. But they would eventually return to Asia, which would leave me to consider the arduous path to becoming a US resident through employment sponsorship right after the 2008 financial crisis.
At the time, I was still a Pakistani national. As much as I would have liked to believe that I was a culturally agile, global citizen, the world did not see me in the same way. On paper, I was a brown Muslim woman with a passport consistently listed at the bottom of the most-cited passport rankings on travel freedom.
A passport is your ticket to the world, a powerful currency that determines your access, mobility, and (to a great degree) how much respect you are afforded in the global economy. In the Gulf states, nationality is a determining factor in setting salaries. Expatriates from Western countries working in the United Arab Emirates, for example, receive higher compensation than those who hold passports from ‘developing’ countries in Asia and Africa.
It is perhaps not at all surprising that the desire to acquire a powerful passport has turned citizenship into an asset that is traded in a global marketplace. Citizenship-for-sale schemes in cash-strapped Southern European economies and Caribbean Islands—commonly known as “golden visas”—reward investors with residence permits that eventually lead to citizenship. In 2016, a record 82,000 millionaires relocated to a new country as a result of such immigration policies designed to attract high-net-worth individuals.
The vast majority of the world’s citizens are not born into the privilege of a powerful passport . Most don’t have the financial means and social capital required to easily acquire one in Greece or St. Kitts . If they wish to thrive in an increasingly interconnected world and to seek better economic opportunities, if they wish to leave behind a life of economic hardship, discrimination, or violence, the task is the same: They must prove their literal worth.
After I completed my postgraduate studies in the UK, I scrambled through a competitive job market in a recession economy. Being a non-EU citizen, I also needed a future employer that would sponsor an employment visa. As a woman of color, I was well aware, even before entering the workforce, that there would be a glass ceiling. But as a woman of color who had to compete for jobs in a labor market where immigration policies were making it increasingly onerous for employers to hire non-EU citizens, I could barely see the glass ceiling supported by tall concrete walls.
Fortunately, I secured jobs with employers who sponsored my work permit, invested in my career progression, and gave me valuable work experience. However, many others were not as lucky. The number of overseas students staying in the UK to work after graduating has fallen significantly since the elimination of the UK’s post-study work visa in 2012 (it has been reinstated for a shorter time period since March 2019). The number of students transferring into employment visas was 6,037 in 2016, compared to 46,875 in 2011—a decline of eighty-seven percent in the span of five years . As such, visa categories vanished and income thresholds increased. The barriers to settling in this country as an economic migrant only got higher.
The UK’s political climate and the national debate regarding immigration was unnerving. Newspaper headlines about proposed changes to migration laws sent me down a rabbit hole of worst-case scenarios. Sleepless nights were spent reading online immigration message boards—a virtual community of fellow immigrants whose life circumstances and immigration troubles were often heart-breaking. Friends would narrate stories about those in their social networks who had to suddenly leave the country because their employer forgot to submit a minor supporting document. Though my employers took care of me, my fear regarding the liminal state I occupied as an immigrant was constant.
For nearly a decade, whenever I returned to a British airport, I traced my steps to the queue for “all other passports.” I stood there with the tourists, students, and other residents like me, who had spent many years traveling in and out of the country for work, pleasure, and emergencies. On paper, I had nothing to fear. I was a law-abiding resident who worked as a sustainability consultant advising British companies. I had also never overstayed a visa or encountered previous immigration trouble.
However, in the moments between handing my passport to the immigration officer and hearing the thud of the stamp on its wafer-thin pages, I felt I was mostly being judged on the basis of factors that were an accident of birth and all the presumed negative connotations that accompanied it. It had very little to do with values I embodied or milestones I had achieved. The joy of coming back to a country I called home was always punctuated by explaining why I deserved to call it home in the first place.
The joy of coming back to a country I called home was always punctuated by explaining why I deserved to call it home in the first place.
As I inched closer to becoming British, I engaged less with the notion of what it meant to embody ‘Britishness.’ I mostly looked forward to being devoid of the feeling of being at the mercy of an arbitrary decision of an immigration officer that could upend my life.
In May 2019, I returned to the UK on my newly-minted burgundy passport. It had arrived in the mail a few weeks after the oath-taking ceremony in February. In the endless corridors of a Heathrow terminal, I watched the frantic body language of fellow passengers outpacing one another to join the long queues at border control for non-EU citizens. My instinctive reaction was to join them.
Instead, for the first time, I followed other British and EU citizens to a queue that was both short and fast-moving. I scanned my new UK passport on a machine that granted me swift access into the country—my country—in fifteen seconds. No questions asked. The contours of a border become a lot less rigid when you carry what are deemed to be the right documents.
In that moment, instead of feeling joy or gratitude towards this immense privilege for which I had worked hard, I felt an impostor syndrome surging. I couldn’t internalize that I “deserved” to stand in that line. It felt surreal to have crossed over. Was this really “my country?” The words rang true, but hollow.
My ambiguity about my new status stemmed from contested narratives of belonging and inclusion, as well as exclusion, especially in post-Brexit Britain. I recalled the words of Nikesh Shukla, quoting Musa Okwonga, in the UK edition of the book The Good Immigrant : “The biggest burden facing people of color in this country is that society deems us bad immigrants—job stealers, benefit scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees—until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.”
The process of naturalization is, in many ways, administrative and bureaucratic in nature. It incorrectly assumes that new immigrants—by virtue of their ability to speak English, to meet high-income thresholds, and to pass the Life in the UK test—are primed to seamlessly cross over, to embrace a sense of belonging and enjoyment of greater freedom and rights. As if the years spent agonizing, hustling, and feeling othered can be wiped away by the state constructing performative belonging through perfunctory rituals like citizenship ceremonies.
Given that the United Kingdom and Pakistan have a dual nationality agreement, I didn’t need to renounce my Pakistani citizenship in order to become British. However, as a Pakistani woman, with roots in a former colony of the UK, I still had complicated feelings about my decision to seek British citizenship. Anti-immigrant sentiment has only amplified since the Brexit referendum in 2016, a people’s vote that only confirmed what those of us from former colonies knew well all these years. While it was a declaration of national public sentiment, government policies have actively created a climate of fear and insecurity since well before the Brexit vote.
The recent Windrush scandal was a sobering reminder of Britain’s hostile environment policies, which were established during Theresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary. In 2018, tens of thousands of people were denied British passports and deported to their origin countries, despite having inalienable citizenship rights in the UK; they were black communities from Caribbean Islands, such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, who came to the UK as British citizens between 1948 and 1971 to help rebuild post-war Britain. These communities supported and shaped a modern United Kingdom that ultimately, flippantly, stripped them of their rights and sent them away.
In the fall of 2016, a few months after the Brexit referendum, then-Prime Minister Theresa May declared in her speech at the Conservative Party Conference, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
Her comment, which attempted to critique the liberal establishment and frame cosmopolitan elites as rootless and uncommitted, drew criticism from across the political spectrum as well as the public. It reflected the Tory vision for post-Brexit nationalism that doesn’t take into account intersectional identities that many citizens of this country embody.
I had wrongly assumed that once I had the currency of a powerful passport, I would be less reflective or conscious of how I had navigated notions of belonging, national identity and integration. Becoming British has in no way insulated me from the rising antipathy towards migrants and the arbitrariness of the government’s ever-shifting policies.
Becoming British has in no way insulated me from the rising antipathy towards migrants and the arbitrariness of the government’s ever-shifting policies.
In the past, I envied my European friends for their ability to live and work here without visa restrictions. Now, they too are processing similar feelings of uncertainty, the fear of being uprooted from a city and country they have called home for years. Nothing, no citizenship, seems so sure anymore. I can empathize with their experience, even if they could not always relate to mine, as they hadn’t yet lived what is now our shared reality.
That I felt like an impostor on re-entry to the UK as a British citizen was a reminder that I must unpeel the layers of my new found passport privilege. I never want to sit comfortably in the knowledge that a small segment of the world’s population can zig-zag to all corners of the globe unencumbered, while the vast majority’s freedoms to cross national borders are significantly curtailed due to racist and discriminatory visa regimes.
I often come back to the words of Kanishk Tharoor : “To be born into a Western passport is, in a very real sense, to feel and know that you have a right to the wider world. To possess a non-Western passport, however, is to be told that your claim to the wider world is much more tenuous or, indeed, illusory.”
Discussions of physical walls and boundaries between nations to keep “the others” at bay have preoccupied the populist imagination. We get outraged by proposals for a wall between the United States and Mexico. We don’t think as often about the daily indignities that stringent border controls and in some cases arbitrary geographical boundaries pose for non-Western passport holders. The rules regarding who gets to go where with how much ease are shaped by the long and complex history of structural inequality between Western colonial powers and the countries they colonized—and continue to exploit.
On a visit to Hong Kong last month, I sailed through border control with my British passport, no visa required. Meanwhile, a Pakistani family stood in a parallel queue. They were subjected to detailed questioning and scrutiny, even though they had valid tourist visas with them. Six months ago, I was ‘only’ Pakistani; I would have likely experienced similar treatment.
But now, I was also British. Nothing else about my circumstances or civic values had changed fundamentally, yet I’d moved up on the scale of global respectability. In this duality of being both British and Pakistani, I had greater access and global mobility, while carrying a personal history and weight of what it means to be seen as a lesser kind of citizen in the world.
The Pakistani family was just here to visit Disneyland, a family that could have been mine. All that differentiated us was a piece of wafer-thin paper.