After 5 years of taking time off the anxieties that come with visa applications, I just applied for one to Tunisia, taking a heavy toll on me. We need to speak more those anxieties and the microaggression that underlines the whole process, which is not only underestimated but normalised. My travel partner Vilius found all the information he needs online in a matter of a quick search, reassuring him of the visa-free privilege he gets for being from Lithuania. But as a Palestinian holder of a UK travel document, it wasn’t straight forward for me. It consumed me.
In a nutshell, the visa process is an unequal system based on the hierarchy of human rights. This hierarchy is rooted in an imperial structure that classifies some as more superior than others. Indeed, it gets more complicated when you put the intersections of race, gender, class, religion and sexual orientation in consideration. But you can safely say that it all depends on the documents one acquires by birth, and somehow these documents dictate your life, you’re either lucky or doomed. In historic Palestine, for instance, those documents decide at which side of Israeli apartheid you stand. While the Israeli apartheid regime systematically violates Palestinians’ human rights, it creates a parallel, privileged life for Israeli citizens and settlers, from which Palestinian citizens of Israel remain excluded in many ways. Similarly, these apartheid policies are reproduced by western and some non-western border agencies based on the imperial premise of ‘shared values’ between Israel and the EU.
When I think of visa, my body becomes overburdened with countless traumas. For most Palestinians, visas represent uncertainty. You’re held in limbo until a further notice. If you’re from Gaza, there are other uncertainties as visa could be obtained, but it could expire while you’re still trying cross to the other side of Rafah Border like what happened to my dad in 2017. And then when you’re out, you’re reminded of your inferiority, both explicitly and implicitly, as you present your document at any border control. You stand on the queue and watch people showing their passports and passing and everything is going smoothly until your turn comes. Then this smooth process is suddenly interrupted because the border police needs to ask you a few ‘casual’ questions that leaves you wondering: Why are you so curious about my life?!
Tunisia wasn’t the first holiday destination I had in mind. I contemplated Bali and invested a lot of effort to get an answer on how to proceed with a visa application- all in vain. The Indonesian embassy has nothing online on the process holders of refugee travel documents needs to undergo to obtain a visa. I called countless times and no one picks the phone, as if no one works there. Then finally someone replied only to tell us that they cannot advise on this issue. I gave up the idea and started contemplating Tunisia as an alternative. That’s when I realised this treatment is not limited to Indonesian embassy. I spent many hours trying to get hold of someone for advice. On the VisaHQ’s online chat, I asked for advice. “We don’t deal with travel documents,” a person replied. “This behaviour is discriminatory,” I replied with frustration, and that was the end of the chat. But I left them the worst review that was available in protest. Meanwhile, I was still spamming the London-based Tunisian embassy’s phone since Friday and literally no one picked the phone. This is probably due to the Eid season but this thought didn’t make it less frustrating. They did eventually reply on Facebook, and explained the documents I need to include with my application and the fees. But really the issues that a holder of a refugee travel document goes though are beyond unacceptable, and those examples are just few amongst many.
At the post office today, I spent nearly two hours trying to make sure that my application is complete. The postman revised the documents for me- I needed him to double check because I cannot afford any mistake. Between every interaction I had with the postman, a sigh would come out of me unintentionally. “Don’t forget to smile,” he said. “It will be fine and you will get the visa.” I smiled to him and said, visas take your smile away. He asked, “where are you from?” I said joking, “I’m a doomed Palestinian, and you?” He replied, “I’m from India but I feel for you. It took me a while to become British but I only needed to become British as my original documents have no value compared with an EU passport.” But the problem is documents of ‘higher value’ doesn’t suddenly turn your skin colour white nor does it protect you from racist policies or negative presumptions.
When I get the visa, I know I’ll be excited about travelling and exploring new places. However, it’s upsetting to be living in a world order that is inherently racist and treats people according to the documents they hold by birth, their skin colour, religion or sexual orientation. This shouldn’t be normalised. And those who are privileged enough to be born free of those anxieties and movement restrictions must not take their privileges for granted and fight with us for equality for all. The hierarchy of human rights should be abolished.
PS: I took the picture of my visa pictures in a hurry. Later I noticed the Arabic article headline of a recently-released Palestinian prisoner Bilal Odeh included in the picture, reading “Memories from prison.” Not to compare but it could be argued that such mechanisms are forms of imprisonments. Most of the traumatic memories I carry with me are attached to Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, where life was another synonym for uncertainty, not only when it comes to a travel visa but pretty much any serious or minimal issue you may encounter in your daily life. And even those of us who managed to break free of that prison, elements of that prison chases them wherever in one way or another. I cannot wait to be able to travel with my Palestinian passport wherever with dignity, free of all forms of violence. Until then I will continue to expose it, individually and collectively!