Paul McMahon tells TBS Travelogue readers just how lucky we are to possess an Australian passport, telling tales of his time in Columbia observing just how disparate rights to travel can be.
Encounters during my recent travel through Colombia made me think about how international relations are often influenced by injustice, and in Colombia’s case do not reflect the true character of its people. It is without doubt that governments use predetermined judgements to protect themselves from particular threats, or the perception of such threats. It is a necessary survival skill to be vigilant about who enters your country.
It reminds me of a time I was travelling in Southern Mexico. I had a very bad copy of my Australian passport, where my face appeared smudged an unsure of. The immigration officials considered taking me to the police as they did with all other foreign nationals in such a situation. But I was Anglo-Saxon and quite obviously Australian. In the end, unlike their usual approach to other Latin Americans, I was asked to leave and get hold of my original passport.
In an age where we’ve shown that equality is a powerful tool of emancipation, why not give everyone the same opportunity to compete on a level playing field. From the stories given to me by many Colombian friends and acquaintances, such equality based on nationality remains a dream.
I have an Australian passport. It is fair to say that Australia along with the United States maintains some of the most stringent immigration processes to protect our borders and avoid the entry of criminals or those travelling under false pretences. Despite this fact, it remains particularly easy for us to travel overseas – the world is our oyster. Australians are found in all corners of the globe with our passport considered as a valid pass to enter the vast majority of countries with great ease. This is where I would like you to consider what it is like to be a responsible, intelligent, hard-working person who holds a Colombian passport, or who is from a less-developed country for that matter.
The act of traversing borders and applying for Visas is very different.
Before such person has even filled out a Visa application, their chances of being granted entry to many countries is greatly diminished. These people feel held back from integrating into a global community where they are often considered a threat, due to their being unjustly stereotyped as drug traffickers or emigrants seeking permanent departure from Colombia. I have met some wonderful people who have had their Visas rejected without explanation. It is impossible to definitively say whether their nationality plays a role in the decision making process. However, this is the perceived fact here in Colombia, and one that cannot be dismissed.
A popular myth that circulates amongst Colombians is that if one who holds a Colombian passport travels to Cuba, the prospect of gaining a US Visa is placed in jeopardy or altogether impossible. I must admit that I have considered the same myth as a possible hindrance with my own passport, but I am also aware of several Australians who have entered Cuba without repercussion upon arrival to the US. This could be because Australians do not require a US Visa, we simply need to let them know we are coming. Regardless of whether the myth holds true or not, it stops Colombians from visiting a country that shares their title as the Salsa Capital of the world – where they share language ties; and where history was written, as two of the first lands to receive Spanish settlement in the Americas.
One night in Cartagena de Indias, on the Caribbean coast of northern Colombia, I was chatting with a couple of Aussie tradies (“tradesmen”, for those who don’t speak Australian English). One of them said he couldn’t believe that a working class labourer from the western suburbs of Melbourne could enter Colombia without a Visa, while the idea of a working class Colombian entering Australia would be a near impossibility. Clearly money is a key factor in this reality. An Aussie Tradie could work a couple of months and save enough for the flight while a Colombian in the same line of work would need years just to meet the same costs. It is the national emblem on their passport that I believe plays a more influential role. To be a Colombian passport holder is not as easy as being an Australian one, the obstacles are endemically more challenging.
I recently attempted to apply for a student Visa at the Mexican Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. Colombians are required to apply for a tourist Visa, while Australians can enter freely into Mexico. A student Visa was even more stringent, for the Colombians. This is a country where we have limited cultural or economic ties, while Mexican-Colombian relations represent a polar opposite, linked by shared history, language, culture and economic exchange. I was ultimately unable to apply in Bogotá as I required some form of Colombian documentation to check the validity of my identity. Despite this the embassy officer reassured me that everything would be easy for me to apply in Mexico itself, because I held an Australian passport. Had I been Colombian I would not be allowed past customs, and surely asked to return to my country of origin.
When I arrived to Mexico a funny thing happened. I was given a tourist Visa for six months – double what most countries give. And a funny thought, when you consider what most Latinos deal with; Visa application or no legal entry given into Mexico.
The relevance of these events was confirmed when I opened a newspaper in Bucaramanga, a provincial city nine hours north of Bogotá. An article in a local publication, Vanguardia, underlined recent changes in Visa requirements when entering Russia, Jamaica, Turkey and Haiti, where Colombians no longer require a Visa application to enter. The article reiterated that only 31 countries permitted open travel to Colombians without a Visa. Although these countries accept the easy entry of Colombian tourists, one should take into account that a transit Visa would be required in any nation where a stopover is required. For instance, on the list were Tuvalu and Nauru, two Pacific Island nations that cannot be reached without a transit Visa application with Australia, New Zealand or possibly the United States.
While some destinations are opening their doors to Colombians, others continue to block them en route.
After all these experiences I realised why my Colombian friends and others are amazed at where I’ve travelled. Because traversing the world remains impressively foreign to them. Yes I have had a unique desire to travel the world, but there exists a particular culture of travelling amongst Australians that has its catalyst in one fact. Our passport is an automatic ticket “to pass freely without let or hindrance”, as is stated on the inner cover of our prized document. I wish the average Colombian could always have the same opportunity to see, to smell and to touch the world without having to work twice as hard to gain the privilege. I hope to see a future where your citizenship doesn’t matter; one where the requirements of entry are equal between all nationalities.
Hay un hecho que decide este futuro…El mundo se puede cambiar.
There is a fact that decides this future…the world can change.