Passport privilege entrenches inequality



The world is often characterised as porous and easy to manoeuvre in this age of unparalleled technology and a globalised economy. But it's only ever been this way to people who have a combination of a particular passport and cultural heritage, particularly in settler colonial nations such as Australia.  

Australian passportIn the 2017 annual Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index, Australia was ranked as having the seventh best passport in the world for travellers according to the number of countries its citizens can access visa-free. Germany topped the index, followed by Sweden and then Denmark, Finland, Italy, Spain and the United States, who each came in at a collective third. The most restrictive passports, wherein their owners had the least freedom to travel, were Pakistani, Iraqi and Afghani ones.

Although the Australian passport is an advantageous one to have on the world stage, it is a highly political, exclusionary document in itself. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are regularly denied full citizenship on account of them not having access to birth certificates, which in turn prevents them from being able to apply for an Australian passport, while many reject Australian nationality and citizenship as an act of resistance and choose to use an Aboriginal passport instead.

Passport privilege is tangible, but merely having the passport of a Western first-world country doesn't grant you the right to embark on footloose travel and living adventures in every other country — an oft overlooked reality that was underlined by mechanical engineer and writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an Australian of Sudanese background, in an interview with Buzzfeed Australia.

'The being-born-in-Sudan thing and having it in your passport makes a difference ... People talk about [the world] being globalised and borderless — it's only globalised and borderless if you have the right passport.'

Perhaps at no time was this more apparent than during Donald Trump's 90-day visa ban on six majority-Muslim countries including Sudan, which meant Abdel-Magied wasn't able to go on a planned speaking tour in the US due to her dual citizenship.

Any mention of dual citizenship is likely to elicit a derisive eye-roll in light of the bureaucratic crisis that forced many MPs to resign from Australian Parliament due to their previously unstated dual citizenship status. But this dichotomy holds concrete ramifications for people of colour beyond their ability to serve in parliament. Acutely aware of any dual citizenship status they may have, unlike the many white MPs who were forced to resign, people of colour with a multi-ethnic, biracial or transnational heritage are engaged in a constant juggling act.

Travel aside, the ability to uproot oneself and find a permanent home in another corner of the world is far harder for a person of colour on an Australian passport than it is for a white person on the same passport.


"The delineation between those with and without European ancestry creates a cohort of second-class citizens who can't enjoy the same privileges because the old bloodlines of colonialism continue to be reproduced."


For instance, Australians who have at least one Irish-born parent or grandparent who was an Irish citizen at the time of their birth can claim citizenship in Ireland. Australians descended from a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent born in Italy may have a claim to Italian citizenship. These arrangements are replicated in many other European countries such as Greece, Germany, Hungary and Spain. In all these countries, citizenship is passed through bloodline — according to the principle of jus sanguinis — not place of birth, which is the principle of jus soli.

This effectively locks out more recent immigrants who may have been born in these European countries but do not descend from the requisite blood line, and runs in sharp contrast to countries such as the United States who grant citizenship to anyone born on American soil.

This cycle of inherited citizenship is reproduced through generation after generation of European family trees. In the 2013 collection Geographies of Privilege, academic Max Andruki wrote an essay about 'transnational whiteness' in the specific context of South Africans migrating to the UK, and situated it within a broader historical narrative of ancestral and settler coloniser privilege — many parallels of which can be drawn with Australia, a fellow settler nation.

'The possession of British nationality through descent thus enables whites who have it to freely move between the UK and South Africa,' he writes, 'fuelling a transnational culture of mobility, in which the body's occupation of any given space can always be contingent, temporary and voluntary.'

Australians with European ancestry do not have imminent deadlines hanging over them in the same way as other Australians who need to apply for youth mobility or working holiday visas before they're 30. Their heritage grants them a painless route to European passports, which means they're able to live and work in any country that is part of the European Union.

It is not uncommon either to hear of white Australians casually talking about the UK Ancestry Visa that they're able to access, which is a visa issued by the UK to Commonwealth citizens with a grandparent born in the UK, Channel Islands or Isle of Man and acts as another avenue through which expanded opportunities are granted by virtue of heritage. It is mainly used by young Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and South Africans of British descent and grants them five years to live in the UK, after which they can apply for a limited or indefinite time, so long as they demonstrate that they have been living and working continuously in the UK and will continue to do so.

'By attending to ancestry, we can argue that through histories of the movement of certain kinds of bodies into certain national spaces, the presence of white bodies has been materially constituted in particular places,' writes Andruki.

The material advantages of being white are in addition to the more murky ways in which people of colour's mobility are often restricted, manifest in the increased scrutiny and heightened discriminatory security screening practices that became more commonplace after 9/11.

Conversely, white people don't face limited mobility in Asia and, according to a report by Alice Yan for the South China Morning Post earlier this year, are even coveted in countries such as China for certain roles on the basis of their appearance.

'It's not uncommon for Chinese companies to hire foreigners, especially white Westerners, to represent them in public relations-type roles,' writes Yan. 'The business of "renting" a foreigner has been going on for well over a decade, and even as foreign faces become more commonplace — there were more than 900,000 foreigners working in China in 2016, up from just 10,000 in the 1980s, according to official data — it remains popular.'  

The delineation between those with and without European ancestry creates a cohort of second-class citizens who can't enjoy all the same privileges because the old bloodlines of settler colonialism continue to be reproduced in ever present ways — manifest in limited cross-border mobility in this case.

The benefits of increased mobility are manifold, from gaining access to a wide range of economic and recreational opportunities to building families, friendships and communities, yet it simply isn't something that is available to each and every Australian.



Sonia NairSonia Nair is a freelance writer and critic who has been published in The Big Issue, the Australian Book Review and Books&Publishing. She tweets @son_nair and blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at

Topic tags: Sonia Nair, citizenship, people of colour, passports



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Existing comments

True about the right to citizenship if you have German heritage, but there is a but, a big one. You have to give up your Australian citizenship. That’s the only fair way: stop dual citizenship altogether.
Russell | 12 December 2017

Very timely. I've recently applied for a passport renewal with all the privilege that entails. Not every other Australian has that privilege. In many countries, people cannot access the same benefits an Australian passport endows. There is shocking inequality in this world and, as I travel, I've seen it. Being white, of British ancestry and with enough money to travel puts me in a very favoured category. And should bring on a significant bout of humility.
Pam | 12 December 2017

And perhaps, even gratitude, Pam?
john frawley | 13 December 2017

I'm not sure about being grateful for being in a more favoured position than others, John. Poverty of merit is the ideal (Matthew 5:3). Something very difficult to get our head around.
Pam | 13 December 2017

I wonder if that applies to earned merit or unearned merit, Pam. Poverty of the latter is certainly a scourge!
john frawley | 13 December 2017

I'm not sure what to say (for once) John. I struggle with the Sermon on the Mount, so many challenges. I took the words "poverty of merit is the ideal" from an article by Gerald O'Mahony SJ. He examines The Beatitudes one by one and on Matthew 5:3 he says: "This Beatitude is not to do with money, with cash, but with being poor in spiritual terms. Ultimately it means that if we recognise that any merit we seem to have is a gift from God and not something we have achieved ourselves, then we have hit upon the truth." O'Mahony's wisdom extends to the other Beatitudes as well.
Pam | 14 December 2017

Being Aboriginal and being able to get a passport still doesn't guarantee you can travel. I am currently desperately try to get a visa to India for a student of mine with a complex family background. It is looking unlikely, despite providing reams of documentation, and the student will be devastated, along with the rest of the group
Lynne Moten | 15 December 2017

Interesting article, Sonia. Thanks. I wasn't aware of the issues indigenous Australians have with obtaining a passport and that clearly needs to be addressed. Just one point, though. You say Australians of European heritage can get a Euro passport with ease. Russell has pointed out the issue with German passports. I was born in the Netherlands of Dutch parentage but am ineligible for a Dutch passport. The reasons are complex (and stupid, in my opinion) but they still bar me from getting one.
ErikH | 15 December 2017

I arrived in Australia as a Dutchman but, eventually, was FORCED to forego my Dutch nationality to ensure I would be a permanent employee of the NSW Education Department. Whenever I arrive at Amsterdam (Schiphol) Airport, I have to line up in the Aliens section. I don't like it!
Henricus Verhoeven | 15 December 2017

Sonia, you are over-optimistic about "white" people's travel opportunities. My husband, who has a British patriality certificate got no greater travel benefits in Btitain than other Australian citizens and my son, born in the U.S., has no right to U.S. citizenship, because he did not establish residency before he was sixteen. It does your agument no service to be inaccurate.
Lenore Crocker | 15 December 2017

Please explain what you think should be done about the citizenship policies of other nations (with a white majority!) who extend the privileges of citzenship of their nation onto the descendants (not always white) of their immigrants (also not always white) ? Perhaps those Australians (citizens not necessarily white) apparently benefiting from the generosity of the governments of Western Europe could voluntarily surrender their rights? I'm sure several Australian Parliamentarians were unhappy to find out about their "white privilege". By openly and eagerly conflating citizenship with race the issue us obscured. If the argument is built on racist assumptions, it will come to racist conclusions. Citizenship and race are overlapping categories but thankfully in Australia and the liberal democratic West are not co-terminous. Those who push this line are destined to see it everywhere they look. May they never succeed.
Patrocles | 27 December 2017

What I don't get is why are people complaining about this. So what if European nations give "heritage visas" to ethnic whites? India does it too through its OCI program. China has it's "home return permit" for foreigners of Chinese ethnicity. If these countries can give privileges based on ethnicity, why not European nations? And to those Australians of colour (who probably migrated to Australia), did you (or your family) migrate all the way to Australia JUST TO MOVE to some European country?
Abhay | 22 May 2019


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