Visa discrimination has recently become a major topic in global health circles. This is following a spate of discriminatory policies in 2022, which specifically targeted African health professionals being denied visas to global health conferences in the Global North. A recent article in BMJ detailed such cases leading to greater calls for hosting such conferences in countries of the Global South.
The truth is, it’s just not that simple. Visa discrimination is not just about North versus South, nor is it restricted to global health. It is a much larger issue of framing modern migration as harmful, which goes beyond issuing temporary visas to attend global health conferences. It includes economic migration, family reunification, refugees and asylum seekers, medical and humanitarian migration, temporary workers and student visas. In this context, simply claiming that hosting a conference in a more visa-friendly country could be a solution, means denying the existence of visa regimes altogether.
For starters, visa policies between South-South, can be just as discriminatory and tied up in global geopolitics. Ethiopia has recently removed 42, mainly African and South American countries, from its list of visa-on-arrival. India and Pakistan rarely allow their citizens to visit each other’s countries—and if they do, it’s via an impossible to achieve police reporting visa. All the Gulf States require visitors from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East to obtain entry visas. The Global Symposium on Health Systems Research held in Colombia, denied or delayed visas to several African, Eastern European and Middle Eastern participants.
Claiming visa discrimination in the context of global health conferences also does a dis-service to some of the worst abuses of power in global visa regimes that exist between many countries of the Global South. The mistreatment meted out by the powerful Gulf States toward unskilled labour coming from South Asia and Africa is a prime example. Similarly, those fleeing death and persecution in conflict-ridden countries of the Global South, have been refused visas by their own neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand. Likewise, the infamous U.K.-Rwanda deportation deal, is as much a case of the Global South treating African asylum seekers as criminals, as it is about the U.K. demonstrating the full force of its racist migration policies and anti-refugee sentiments.
These cases are a part of a broader resurgence of the control of global human movement, of which the denial of visas to global health professionals is only a tiny fraction. It is tied to the arguments for closed borders for self-preservation, versus open borders, where free movement is a human right for everyone regardless of origin. Closed borders have not only negatively impacted global migration flows by arbitrarily restricting movement via discriminatory migration policies. They have also adversely impacted public opinion and attitudes toward migration—both in the North and the South.
I have argued previously that migration governance, of which visa regimes are a crucial part, is a form of white saviorism, and a direct outcome of colonialism, whereby the Global North continues to control the idea of who is worth “saving” by allowing entry into their borders—be they temporary workers, refugees and asylum seekers, economic migrants, or for that matter, global health professionals. It is this influence of colonial power and control that has also filtered down to many post-colonial societies in the Global South.
Unfortunately, there seem to be no real alternatives that could address the issue of discriminatory migration policies on a global scale. Visa-free travel agreements within regional blocs, such as the African Union and the short-lived South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation have not shown any major success towards those from other countries of the Global South. Even the coveted dual citizenship perpetuates imbalance, rather than equality. A Global North passport is insignificant when the country of birth or racial origin of the passport holder is in the Global South.
In short, visa discrimination must be seen as an interconnected global policy issue, rather than a siloed view of North against South. This is not to divert blame from the Global North for its discrimination against the Global South, but rather to emphasize the fact that contemporary borders as they have manifested are not natural, and certainly not limited to only one sphere of the world. Even the Global South is not a monolith. Each region and country comes with its own political history which influences its decision-making practices and approach towards border policy.
The hyper focus on migration as an economic or social deal breaker for nations has exacerbated the debate about whether citizens should be allowed to be truly global, or their freedom of movement curtailed based on the individual sovereignty of nations. But it is exactly this focus that needs to be maintained to address border inequity between nations and in tackling discrimination and racism in global human movement. The discussion on visa discrimination in global health, must now become part of a broader analysis on migration and its discontents. Otherwise, we risk losing out on tackling one of the world’s most basic human rights.
About the author: Themrise Khan is an independent development professional and researcher with over 25 years of experience in international development, gender, and global migration. She has just published a co-edited book; White Saviorism in International Development. Theories, Practices and Lived Experiences (Daraja Press, Canada, 2023). Twitter: @themrise
Competing interests: None
Handling Editors: Seye Abimbola and Neha Faruqui