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Opinion | Why I had to check the privilege of my passport

The passport has become a vital travel document for globe trotters, expats and generally anyone who happens to cross a border when travelling from A to B.

The humble passport still can’t seem to shake off the ghosts of imperialism. Class is less decipherable with wealth alone, what determines who is a part of the upper echelon, is if you live and were born in a rich country.

The concept of the passport has existed since rulers and lands were first invented. The earliest mention of a passport surfaced circa 450 B.C in the Bible (book of Nehemiah). Nehemiah receives a letter from the King, which requests for the governors of the Euphrates grant him safe passage and allow him to travel to Judah.

In Britain the earliest surviving reference to a "safe conduct" dates back to 1414, during the reign of Henry V. At that time, documents like these could be issued by the king to anyone - English or not. British passports were written in French until 1858 - this is when the passport first acquired its role as a “British identity document”. Nevertheless, passports weren’t required for international travel until the first world war.

During this time a passport was a single-page document that included one photograph, signature and a dehumanising description with details such as "shape of face", "complexion" and "features". The entry on this would read something like: "Forehead: broad. Nose: Flat. Eyes: small."

The “Old Blue" was issued in 1920 and remained a steady symbol for travelling Brits, until it was gradually replaced by the burgundy European version in 1988.

With the introduction of new laws, processes and a rigid immigration system - migrating to the UK is no easy feat. I’m a second-generation Nigerian immigrant. I was born in the London, raised in London and educated in the UK, and the identity I assumed at birth is British. People move to Europe for various reasons, most, opt to leave their home countries in the hope of finding work or better living conditions for themselves and their families.

For a very long time, I convinced myself the concept of travel was a luxury, not a necessity. It wasn’t until I was 18 years-old that I grew out of this narrow mindset, it was then that I applied for my first British passport. (Before this point, the only identity document I possessed was an (extremely tattered) birth certificate, which, at the time, was sufficient to handle all manner of British bureaucracies).

The day I received my passport from the office, I remember being congratulated by an office clerk who delicately handed me an envelope that contained my new burgundy booklet. It was odd that this clerk saw a passport as an achievement. In fact, it was only now that I was seen a British, it was now doors of opportunity were propped open, and it was now that I had indisputable access to world.

Although, I am writing this pre-Brexit, I know that there’s an innate power and privilege associated with owning a British passport

Solely based on the colour of my passport, there are a series of benefits I reap and also a series of restrictions that do not apply to me. I am lucky because I can move and live freely across many countries, based on the nationality of my passport.

I spoke with photographer Nwaka Okparaeke, about her dual-ethnicity and growing up in London with her English mother and Nigerian father. Her subjective experience of passport privilege is a reminder that immigration border controls can be merciless. “Passport privilege relates to the way people are treated depending on their passport's nationality. I don’t know much about this term and it’s origins but from what I do know about immigration and even people simply trying to go on holidays or short visits, is that if you're not from the western world you get it much harder when trying to navigate through various borders. People also assume your intentions are dishonest, and your true intention is to come for illegal reasons”.

Nwaka continues, “When I was young my Dad was not allowed to leave Nigeria despite the fact that he had a pregnant wife and two children living in England. This was because they didn’t believe his marriage was legit. Despite having all the correct paperwork, they continued to try and find irrelevant reasons; such as the possibility that he might not be able to support his wife financially when he's to join the family. Anyone with common sense and a heart would know that this makes no sense! Eventually my mother had to appeal this decision and then my dad was finally allowed over to be with his family.”

"Passport privilege relates to the way people are treated depending on their passport's nationality" - Nwaka Okparaeke

Passport privilege (or the lack thereof) is about debunking the notion that foreign passport holders are on the lower slopes of civilization and integration. No matter the colour of your passport, international inequality is something that affects us all, and over time is something that has become more obvious from day to day. It’s something institutions and the governments acknowledge and are capable of changing, but they choose not to do so. I’m a black woman and my privileges are sparse with racial and gender disparities existing in practically every sphere of Western society, however, I can not discount one of the most powerful privileges, my passport.

Photography: Enefaa Thomas

Words: Mag Ibiam

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