The Sunday Magazine

U.S. citizens no longer have access to most of the world — the global South never had it

United States citizenship is one of the most prized citizenships in the world, giving citizens to both live and work inside the country and travel, hassle-free, to 185 others. Because of COVID-19, that number is down to 28.

Americans are experiencing travel limitations that much of the world already faces

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the United States, Americans have joined the ranks of people whose passports are viewed with suspicion by the rest of the world. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Listen19:31

Americans used to have one of the most prized passports in the world, considered a golden ticket to wealth, travel and opportunity.  

With an American passport in your bag, you could arrive at the doors of 185 countries and get visa-free entry. No big questions —  just business or pleasure? 

But with the onset of COVID-19, Americans are limited to just 28 countries, mostly in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. That number drops if you exclude countries that require a two-week quarantine, such as the the United Kingdom or South Korea.

On July 18, the European Union renewed its recommendation that U.S. residents be banned from entry to any member-states. The same day, Canada confirmed the U.S. border would remain closed to non-essential travel for another month.

More than 3.5 million U.S. residents have caught COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and by mid-July, the disease killed more than 138,000 people, according to the New York Times.

Travel limitations in the rest of the world

If U.S. citizens are feeling like they've suddenly lost access to most of the world, they should probably talk to citizens of countries like Sri Lanka. For decades, the island nation, along with many other developing nations, have had to jump over hurdles to leave their country.

Indi Samarajiva is a Canadian-born, American-raised Sri Lankan writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Shruthi Mathews)

Indi Samarajiva, a writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was born in Canada, and has a Canadian passport to boot. With access to 183 countries visa-free, Samarajiva was rarely concerned about access to other nations, until he had children.

When Samarajiva decided to visit South Korea, along with his wife, son and daughter, he quickly ran into roadblocks.

His daughter has a British passport, inherited through Samarajiva's wife. His son is eligible for a British citizenship, but they haven't done the paperwork just yet. That meant all his son had was his Sri Lankan citizenship to enter South Korea.

The Sri Lankan passport is in the bottom 10 per cent internationally when it comes to visa-free travel, according to the Henley Passport Index.

"When we're going to Korea, my daughter just sails through," said Samarajiva.

"But for my son, I have to go to the embassy. I have to bring bank statements. I have to bring letters. [...] It's honestly like a humiliating and unnecessary process. And of course, they also make you pay for it."

The pandemic has prompted lawmakers around the world to close national borders, and no passport holders have regained the number of visa-free travel destinations they had prior to the pandemic.

"I think Americans, and honestly, the world can see what I've seen my whole life, which is that these borders are real, they're sharp and they hurt people," said Samarajiva.

"I can see the absurdity of the situation because [my] kids are basically the same. And just based on paperwork, they're treated so differently."

A likely return to normal?

Dimitry Kochenov, chair in European constitutional law and citizenship at Groningen University, believes that these limitations can be painful for Americans to witness because they've never had to experience them.

Dimitry Kochenov studies global, EU citizenship and European constitutionalism. (Submitted by Dimitry Kochenov)

"They're simply confronted with this reality that is well known for for the holders of the absolute majority of other passports all around the world," Kochenov said.

He argues in his book Citizenship that citizenships recreate class structures between the poor and rich internationally, and mean people of certain nationalities are landlocked to poorer countries.

"If you are Sri Lankan, if you're Iraqi, if you are a Central African, [...] then you are not welcome anywhere," he said.

"And instead of rights, your citizenship actually gives you liabilities because it locks you in a poor space where you cannot possibly realise your potential."

Kochenov said that the COVID-19-prompted travel restrictions are likely temporary, and there's a high chance that U.S. citizens will regain their broader ability to travel, once the pandemic ends.

For example, though the European Union recommended that member-countries ban U.S. residents from entering, current American citizens living in Europe are not being expelled.

The biggest concern for Kochenov remains whether politicians will use the opportunity to keep borders closed to potential immigrants from around the world. 

"This situation [...] unfortunately, is perceived by some parts of our occupations as normal. So the task number one now in Europe and elsewhere is to ensure that the world opens up at least to the same level which we could observe before the pandemic has started," said Kochenov.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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