For the global traveler in the age of COVID, here’s your elusive golden passport

October 6, 2021, 1:19 PM UTC

With COVID-19 travel restrictions still in place from Tokyo to Topeka, passport inequality has never been more problematic for the global traveler.

That’s according to the annual Henley Passport Index, which tracks travelers’ global mobility based on the passport they hold. For the past 16 years, the specialists in residence and citizenship planning have been tracking the “passport power” rankings.

Sitting at the top of the list this year are Japan and Singapore. Both countries have extremely strict COVID entry rules that bar almost all foreign nationals from entering their countries. But holders of these passports can enter 192 countries and territories without a visa. War-torn Afghanistan sits at the bottom of the ranking. Afghans can travel to only 26 countries without a visa stamp.

The index relies heavily on data from the International Air Transport Association. It shows a very clear trend: Countries in the Global North with “high ranking passports” are enforcing stricter inbound COVID-19 travel restrictions when compared with countries in the Global South with “lower-ranking passports,” which have relaxed their borders without seeing the openness reciprocated.

This difference in border restrictions, experts now reckon, are being conveniently kept in place to contain mobility from the Global South.

Countries with the most access around the world are located in East Asia, Western Europe, and North America, while even fully vaccinated travelers from countries in the Global South “remain locked out of most of the world,” the researchers note.

Germany, which sits in second place with South Korea, currently restricts 100 countries from entering its borders. Meanwhile, toward the bottom of the index is Egypt, ranked 97th. Egypt has no travel restrictions in place for incoming visitors. Egyptians, in turn, can visit only 51 foreign destinations. Kenya is ranked 77th. It too has no travel bans in place. Kenyan passport holders can visit only 72 countries and territories.

Vaccination paradox

Many experts are quick to note the travel restrictions imposed by rich countries don’t always correlate consistently with the vaccination rates, or infection rates, of the target country.

For instance, the U.K. updated its travel restrictions last week to recognize only vaccines from its approved vaccination list when they’ve been given in a select group of countries including the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, or an EU country—sparking outrage among people jabbed with the same vaccine in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

The COVID-19 travel restrictions are just “new additions to the toolbox of migration containment instruments employed by the Global North to curb mobility from the Global South,” says professor Mehari Taddele, a fellow at the UN University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies, commenting on the report.

Others like Erol Yayboke, senior fellow with the nonprofit policy research organization International Security Program, foresee a lasting impact on human global mobility. “Increased pressure to move for survival will be met with pandemic-related barriers to movement that are likely to linger, both because the virus itself is lingering and because increased control over migration will be difficult for some leaders to relinquish,” he said.

Another worrying aspect of global travel is vaccine discrimination. “Your health or vaccination status—sometimes in combination with additional passports—may now be even more important for your global access rights than your primary passport is,” laments Kevin Bürchler of the Swiss health consultant SIP Medical Family Office.

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