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5 Sep, 2005

Study Finds Global Visa Curbs Increasingly Restrictive, Imbalanced

A study of global visa regimes has signalled that governments will have to reconcile their push for democracy, free trade and open-market globalisation with the increasingly restrictive and inequitable visa curbs on free movement of people.

The study says that visa restrictions have created a system that “is one of highly unequal access to foreign spaces, reinforcing existing inequalities.”

When it comes to enjoying visa-free travel to foreign countries, passport holders from rich nations form an exclusive club of 25 countries facing the fewest restrictions for going abroad, according to the research conducted by the geographer Dr Eric Neumayer from London’s LSE.

The study claims to be “the first ever attempt to understand what drives countries to impose visa restrictions on passport holders from other nations.” It also looks at how these restrictions contribute to the growing inequalities between rich and poor countries.

Presenting the results to the annual geographers’ conference in London on 31 August, Dr Eric Neumayer compared the joint visa arrangements between over 189 countries – over 36,000 visa deals between pairs of countries.

The research revolved around the study of seven hypotheses:

<> Countries impose visa restrictions on passport holders from nations from which they fear large-scale illegal immigration or infiltration by potential terrorists, criminals such as drug traffickers and other persona non grata.

<> Passport holders from countries whose nationals have perpetrated more acts of terrorism in the past are more likely to face visa restrictions going abroad.

<> The more autocratic and repressive a regime is, the more it is threatened by open borders. Hence, democracies, all other things equal, are more liberal with their system of visa restrictions than autocracies are.

<> Countries grant visa-free travel for high-income countries for economic reasons.

<> Countries that are major trading partners are less likely to impose visa restrictions on each other major tourist destinations are less likely to impose visa restrictions and that major tourist sending nations are less likely to face visa restrictions travelling abroad.

<> Countries are less likely to impose visa restrictions on nations with which they have a historical, geographical or civilisational link.

The study shows how rich countries systematically use visa restrictions to keep out visitors from countries that are poor, undemocratic and experience violent political conflict, not least in order to prevent asylum seekers and other migrants from entering. At the same time, citizens from those richer countries are enjoying much better access to poorer countries.

It says notes that on average, OECD countries do not have a number of visa restrictions in place that differs in a statistically significant way from the number of restrictions imposed by non-OECD countries (around 150 in both cases).

“However, whereas the average OECD citizen faces visa restrictions in travel to approximately 93 foreign countries, the average non-OECD citizen needs a visa to travel to approximately 156 countries.”

The study notes that “OECD countries use their political power to maintain these inequalities.”

“Whilst the European Union’s above-mentioned Council Regulation on visa restrictions threatens any country being exempt from visa regulations entering the Schengen area with a review of its status should it decide ‘to make the national of one or more Member States [of the European Union] subject to the visa obligation’ (European Communities 2001b), it has no problem with the fact that it imposes visa restrictions on many third countries who grant nationals from EU countries visa-free entry.

“Similarly, in order to be granted visa-free access to the United States, it is a prerequisite for countries to offer reciprocal privileges to United States passport holders, but offering such privileges in no way provides countries with visa-free access to the US (Siskin 2004).”

According to Dr Neumayer, “For passport holders from rich countries the world is in easy reach and travel is often free of visa restrictions. But the promise of a borderless world is an empty one for the vast majority of people. For them, holding a passport is almost meaningless without a visa.”

He concludes: “Visa restrictions allow states to facilitate the trans-national movement of some at the expense of deterring the movement of others. If mobility is one of its defining features, then as with many other aspects of globalisation, its realisation is highly stratified and subject to states’ monitoring, regulation, interference and control.

“States might struggle with exercising their prerogative for thorough and comprehensive monitoring and control of movement in times of globalisation. But the era of supposedly unprecedented mobility is only part of the picture, and is at the same time also an era of great, continued and enforced inequality in access to foreign spaces based on the principle of nationality.”

Dr Neumayer says the study makes a first attempt at analysing and understanding the role of visa restrictions in granting unequal access to foreign spaces. He calls for more in-depth and qualitative studies to be conduct to complement this “necessarily broad-brush quantitative analysis.”

The full study can be downloaded from: http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/geographyAndEnvironment/whosWho/profiles/neumayer/pdf/Visarestrictionsarticle.pdf

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