Only a country as complacent as Britain could give up its border privilege so easily

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Whenever I fly with someone who is a laid-back traveler—someone who arrives right before check-in closes, then eats a full breakfast as I approach meltdown—I tease them about something I call “border privilege.” Chances are, a casual traveler was born with access to a passport that has a high “power rating.”

If you don’t know what that is, you’re in luck because you’re probably the holder of a passport that ranks high on the Henley Passport Index – a global ranking of countries in terms of the freedom of travel their passports have. The higher your passport ranks, the more “border privilege” you have – that is, the ability to cross borders with at best a sense of excitement and at worst mild irritation at the inconvenience of travel.

As the reality of Brexit bits and international travel ramps up post-lockdown, Brits are finding out a thing or two about border privilege – namely what happens when you lose it. Only a nation that saw freedom of travel as a right could have thrown it away so easily. Those who haven’t grown up with frontier privilege can tell you that without it, travel is an obstacle course; something you brace your loins for, prepare briefcases for, several cheer Marys and inshallahs for.

The passports at the top of the Henley Index allow the holder to visit almost 200 countries without securing a visa in advance. The lower ones, like the Sudanese I was born with, have to pass through the eye of the needle before they are allowed to enter most countries. Applicants face almost unscalable walls of bureaucracy and suspicion, comical demands for paperwork and often humiliation and rejection.

For a long time I was so terrified that the trip would fall through at the 11th hour that I didn’t want to make any plans until I was on the other side of the border. I booked tickets only at the last minute, at exorbitant costs, as I was sure it was too late for anything to go wrong. I’ve had visa applications languish for weeks and months beyond the date I intended to travel, missed the bedside of sick relatives, the celebrations of friends and family, and too many work and training opportunities than I can bear to count.

Having a low-rated passport means the holder is under constant threat of falling down trapdoors in the middle of a trip. A visa detail overlooked by a border official meant I was called, after landing in Riyadh, into a room with angry Saudi border officials who berated me for this oversight, and sent me back on the next flight. I was not allowed to leave the airport until I had paid the price for the return flight, which took all the cash I had. Another time I was dragged into secondary treatment in the US with no explanation and no recourse, where I was left for so long without information or updates, it probably amounted to some kind of illegal detention.

Since 2016, the British passport has fallen from joint first place on the index to sixth. With it comes a new reality, which is already ominously being described as the “new normal”. Travel to and within Europe becomes unpredictable, expensive and generally has more of the obstacles that others are used to. The introduction of a single stamp to enter the EU sounds like a small enough thing, but it triggers hours of queues and then the domino effect starts – missed connections, missing luggage, mazes of refunds.

In this new reality, consistency is gone. What you need to enter France is different to what you need to enter Spain, the latter recently confirmed that UK visitors may need proof of sufficient funds to cover your stay, a return ticket and proof of accommodation. Regardless of the requirements, the sufficiency of your evidence must be assessed by a single guard within whose person the entire border lies. You will understand that all travel permits, both those that require only a stamp and those that require an involved visa process, are subject to different versions of the same short sentence, usually attached to entry permits and disclaimers on travel information packets: “This is not a final entry visa, a border official can still refuse entry.”

Someone with a low-ranking passport will tell you that in any interaction with this border official, you absolutely must keep your own counsel, knowing that this guard holding your passport is the most powerful person in the next few minutes. in your life. They are a sovereign, they can make or break laws on the spot, and possibly throw you into financial ruin. Even when things are bad, always remember that they could be much worse.

Related: Brexit is a flop and the voters know it. So why can’t Labor call for closer ties with Europe? | Roy Hattersley

In all situations, calm yourself by repeating an incantation that reminds you that you are lucky: lucky to have come this far; lucky to have the papers and funds to travel at all; lucky that you have the skills and physical abilities to cope with an unexpected obstacle; and lucky that the worst you’re likely to face is a scorched ego and wallet, rather than detention or deportation.

I tell about these experiences without cruelty. I once sat, shaking, next to a trembling elderly South Asian woman in a wheelchair as she was yelled at in secondary processing at an American airport for not being able to speak sufficient English to answer questions about who she was visiting. Whatever her family had put in to secure her entry into the country had been wiped out by a single new arbitrary demand.

The most important lesson you will learn is that border officials may not know the law and yet have infinite authority. They may be ill-informed, under-resourced or unable to keep pace with changes in border policy; and yet they are part of such a large and messy border policing machine that your mistreatment and their mistakes will be absorbed into its core.

For British travelers, however, it will be an extra kick. Your complaints will then be trivialized by Brexit evangelists. You’ll be told these are small sacrifices to make, the plight of a privileged few in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis in a country trying to take back control of its own borders and economic destiny, unable to afford or navigate vacations to our nearest and dearest available neighbors are a “first world” problem.

But in the end, what will become clear, as with all Brexit fallout, is that the benefits we’ve lost can be reclaimed by those who have the most – the express routes, the travel insurance, the funds and the time. For the rest of us, I recommend putting together a paper folder of supporting documents, a very early arrival at the airport and, if you’re overcome with frustration or panic, remembering that it could always be worse.

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