• Rashid Gabdulhakov

Passport as a foundation of discrimination

Updated: Oct 7

International travel

Airport. Two lines. One for the EU/EEA+a few other wealthy countries, another one for everyone else. The first group can perform passport control procedure themselves, the second category is in a long line, passports checked with a magnifying glass.


Source: GETTY IMAGES

With my passport issued by Uzbekistan, I board the plane and fly into the friendly neighbouring 'stan' where you would think everything should suddenly be reversed - Central Asians get in the fast line and EU/EEA+ are scrutinized over the purpose of their visit (I am NOT in favour of any such profiling and discrimination, just trying to put things in perspective). But no. It is the immediate neighbours who are invited to step into the special room for interrogation, while the far-away guests are exiting within minutes (not in every 'stan', some are, unfortunately, hostile to anyone entering and exiting).


"Where are you flying from?" "Have you called anyone in Ukraine or Turkey recently?" "Can we see your call history and photos?" - these and other absurd questions are asked by the mysterious protector of national security with an enviable level of apathy.


Screenshot from: https://www.passportindex.org/

I came as a foreigner, found love, established a family - the country became native to me, but I remained an alien to it.


I absolutely love (big) airports, so many fates are passing by and flying off. It is sort of a city square for the global village (at least for those who have the means to fly). But the airport is also a place where the discriminatory powers of our passports are illuminated the most. Some passports allow visa-free travel to most countries in the world, while others, on the contrary, require a visa. But what does it even mean to belong to one state via passport? Many years ago I came to the US as an alien. I arrived in the country I knew little about and left the place that had become dear to me many years later. Yet I left as an alien by passport.

You may reside in the country where you establish your life, but each time you cross the border, you are risking denial of entry. For nearly five years I lived in the neighbouring 'stan'. My wife is a citizen of this country. I came as a foreigner, found love, established a family - the country became native to me, but I remained an alien to it.


Exit-visa? Domestic travel restrictions

Sometimes things are even worse. Your own government can set limits on your mobility via embarrassing exit visas that you have to obtain prior to applying for the visa of a destination country. This echo of the totalitarian past carried on in Uzbekistan and lingered all the way until 2019. The idiotic sticker glued into the passport allowed the lucky possessor to travel freely (almost). The damn thing had to be renewed every two years, subject to a lengthy application (with names, addresses and other details for all relatives, including those no longer around) and the traditional interrogation session - they seem to obsess with these. Your right to travel was in the hands of a chainsmoking officer, who never left the country himself but ruled over the lives of others. This topic is so significant (albeit bizarre) that it requires a separate entry. For now, let's focus on another absurdity in the post-Soviet passport system - ethnicity.


Uzbek border guards. Source: Routers

Ethnicity

While some states have abolished the practice, others continue listing the legendary Soviet-era "fifth section" in the passports. How on earth can a person be narrowed down to one ethnicity and what for? What a genius recipe for discrimination! I have friends who come from a mixed background and whose identity had been summarized as "Urus" [Russian] in their passports. Being an ethnic Tatar (among other known and unknown blood in me), my passport predetermines my identity. It creates the scenario in which the passport country will always perceive people who are not "ethnic Uzbek" to represent the "sociological other", with a different historical motherland. While that abstract motherland will perceive its "abandoned children" as foreigners with an alien passport issued by a foreign state.


COVID-19 revealed another absurdity linked to propiska - people were forced to travel back to their birthplaces for lockdown, regardless of the fact whether or not they had anyone or anything resembling home there.


Propiska [registration in the birth town]

Two stamps in the passport that have destroyed too many lives. This one is another embarrassing practice that forced one to live and die in the same place they were born in. Propiska as a Soviet-legacy continues to restrict people's ability to travel within their own state, to buy property or get employed outside of their place of registry. Sure, you can do things informally, but that puts you in all sorts of vulnerable positions, be it lack of property rights, lack of employee rights, or the need to return to your birthplace to receive any state services. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed another absurdity linked to propiska, when people were forced to travel back to their birthplaces for lockdown, regardless of the fact whether or not they had anyone or anything resembling home there.


One might ask, why not just de-register and re-register in the new place. This question is best answered through Marie Antoinette analogy - "you have no bread to eat? Then why don't you eat cake instead?!" If only thing were that easy...

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©2020 by Rashid Faridovich Gabdulhakov