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Visa Woes and Wars

by Eric Boa

From 1970 to 1971 I was a volunteer teacher in Botswana, eager to visit other countries. At the end of the first term I headed off with Alan, a fellow volunteer teacher, to spend Christmas in Ovamboland. We hitch-hiked across the edge of the Kalahari in the back of a tall truck, bouncing on top of window frames, mailbags and other essential goods destined for Ghanzi. From there we crossed the border into South West Africa (now Namibia) on another truck, this time full of empty fuel barrels.

Once in Windhoek we found out that entering Ovamboland, a protected area bordering Angola, was going to be more difficult than we’d imagined. South Africa had troops stationed along the border to prevent incursions by those fighting against apartheid. Angola was a safe haven, but also had its own internal wars, an inevitable feature of post-colonial independence. Alan and I knew vaguely about these conflicts but mentally shrugged them off. When someone told us that the way to get into Ovamboland was to get a visa to Angola, we didn’t think twice. We’d have to enter Angola in order to return to Windhoek. During our visit we went with our friends for a cup of coffee across the border.

Our Angolan visas were issued the same day we applied. They cost us a few rand and took up a full page in my passport. I was rather proud of the colourful visa and showed it off to friends in later years. They were duly unimpressed. Next, we hitch-hiked to Cape Town from Oshikango, a distance of 2900 km, in just under two days. We visited Lesotho. No visa required. Back into South Africa and then to Botswana, all without visas.

This is easy, I thought. At the end of our year we had several weeks free. I headed north with OC editor Richard (we were volunteers at the same school) to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Zambia. No visas required, but the Rhodesian immigration official did something strange. He stamped a piece of paper and not my passport. The white majority in Rhodesia was resisting independence and their rear-guard actions invoked sanctions from other countries. A Rhodesian stamp could limit which countries you were able to visit. Similar policies were used to limit travel by Israelis. These days Armenia and Azerbaijan won’t allow you to visit both with the same passport.

The real revelation about visas occurred when Richard and I were idly deciding whether we should visit Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC). The visa fees were listed on the wall of the embassy in Lusaka. More expensive for UK citizens than Angola, but still affordable. I think I was more eager than Richard [you were, Ed.], though even my enthusiasm was muted by an inability to explain what we’d do when we got to Lubumbashi. Another dusty mining town of little tourist distinction. The visa tariffs made me realise that some nations are viewed benignly (no fee or no visa required) while others are actively disliked. US citizens had to pay around $70 for their visa, around four times more than anyone else.

Why? The US did not like political developments in newly independent Zaire, even less so the politicians who appeared to threaten business as well as geo-political interests. Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister was assassinated in 1961. His successors have fared little better, with modern interference from neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. What easier way to show your dislike of a nation than by charging a lot for visas? If that’s not enough, then make it difficult to apply. Several options are available: insistence on invitation letters from upstanding citizens or organisations, provision of evidence of financial heft (including bank statements) and residence (utility bills) and so on. Combine these with impenetrable forms and you are sending out the clearest signs that some nationalities are not welcome.

Political differences and on-going feuds about who owns bits of land that have little or no value for agriculture or other profitable endeavour (think India and Pakistan and Kashmir), though doubtless strategic importance (think Bolivia and Chile and access to the sea for the former), can all be expressed through visa policies. My colleague Jeff, who is American and lives in Bolivia, introduced me to the ‘revenge visa’, another way to really, really irritate travellers. For many years Brazilians were able to travel to the US without a visa. When this stopped, Brazil retaliated, a not unreasonable reaction you might think. Yet I suspect that the impact was hugely disproportionate, with Brazilians wanting to visit family members in either country unable to do so because of the cost and bureaucratic hassle.

Brazil is a common stopping off point for flights from the US and Europe, so any US citizen has to have a Brazilian visa. Transit facilities, you ask? Not in Sao Paulo, as in Miami and other frequently used US hubs. If these barriers weren’t bad enough, add the requirement for all travellers, including small children, to visit the visa-issuing office in person. There have been admirable improvements introduced that allow you to submit visas online (India comes to mind for UK citizens), yet my experience has been that most require you to hand in the forms in person.

Immigration check at the Uganda/DRC border

I did eventually get to visit DRC in 2004. The intervening years had exposed me to many different ways in which travel has been made more difficult by the introduction of harsher and more onerous conditions and procedures for getting a visa. My first DRC visa was issued in Kampala in Uganda, from where my journey to North Kivu began. I was surprisingly pleased by the simple process: visit visa-office, pay a reasonable fee, fill in a few forms, provide evidence of being a model citizen, receive passport next day. It didn’t take long for things to go downhill.

Around 2010 I was required to visit the DRC visa office in London. The first time I waited in line in a narrow corridor leading directly on to the pavement. I heard mumblings, banging of papers and pleas for understanding. The visa gatekeeper – I can think of no other way to describe him – was resolute. “Non!” Wave of dismissive hand. Next one. “Non!” Then an applicant I have learnt to recognize, and dread: the courier from a company that submits an application on your behalf. Along with twenty others.

Monsieur Non! left and I got used to the visa process, checking that all my forms were in order, including invitations from the cocoa-exporting company I was working for, the local administration in Beni and so on. I smiled when a board appeared in the corridor saying that it would now take at least 15 days to process an application, “the same time it takes for the UK government to process visa applications”. Touché.

The Republic of Suriname's visa form recognises concubines

I can now look back wryly at the hoops, hurdles and behaviours that have made visa applications a source of irritation and frustration. One thing hasn’t changed: I still have a UK passport that allows me, according to the Henley Passport Index, visa-free access to 187 destinations. Japanese and Singapore citizens lead the HPI’s list with 192 countries they can go to without the need to get a visa. The list says a lot about current attitudes to countries. Japan appears to have been forgiven for past wars and invasions. Or is simply accepted as an economic superpower.

Ukraine had 129 visa-free destinations last year. Now the figure is 141, ahead of Russia with 119. Some Russians, of course, don’t always bother with applying for a visa when entering other countries.

Some countries continue to apply visa regulations that are onerous, disproportionate and outwardly unfriendly. Yes, I’m referring to the United Kingdom. Visa woes and wars are still, sadly, an inescapable fact of life.


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