I recently completed an IELTS English test for academic purposes, and it was an eye opening journey for me into the privilege I am afforded by being a white European. Disclaimer: I am neither a journalist, nor an expert in border control or privilege, I just really want to share my experience.
We sat the IELTS (International English Language Testing Service) exam in London. Passports that sat on candidates’ desks ranged from South Korea, to the Philippines, from India to Argentina. What struck me was the sheer scale of people wishing to complete an exam, with over 100 in our group and more on other days and at various other locations. The test questions were simple enough to a native or proficient speaker, however a lot of testing relied on the ability to understand a host of complex instructions. Let’s just say it was a pretty weird day. After discussing my favourite season and which city I thought was the most beautiful in the speaking test, similar to what I would have done in high school French, I reflected on the people surrounding me.
The IELTS test, ‘the world’s most popular English language test for higher education and global migration’, is one of the gate keepers of migration to many English-speaking countries such as New Zealand, the USA and Canada. These countries can also be desirable destinations for foreigners, as was shown by the commitment to a nearly 8 hour test process.
Maybe I’m looking too far into things, but I guess it felt different being a native speaker doing the test because I wanted to, because of potential opportunities. And others were too, but I wondered about where they were coming from, and their reasons for being there. Where were they intending on heading to after this test? Why were they leaving their countries of birth?
I am a white European. I have free movement across the EU and Schengen areas, I moved to the UK simply by boarding a flight and opening a bank account. I easily complete a quick ESTA form to visit Canada or the US. However, I am also a South African citizen with a South African passport. My family are South African, I know about their struggles with visas, embassies, and bureaucracy. I know my little green passport gets me into far fewer places than my red EU-member one, which delivers 165 countries without a visa in comparison to 98. Brexit has already made me think about this issue, it’s brought it firmly close to home. An atmosphere of closedness, of closed-mindedness is in my view detrimental to any country. Especially for the UK, relatively successful in recent decades due to free travel and connections with the world.
I’m keeping my options open, particularly for academic opportunities. I have that luxury, that privilege to up and leave when I prefer a change of scenery. Open borders are currently a privilege, a luxury. For those with citizenship to a ‘powerful’ passport through jus sanguinis (blood right) or jus soli (birth right), this privilege is closely guarded. Borders are kept tightly closed to people with less powerful citizenship, only ‘desirable’ candidates need apply.
Looking back through history, powerful western nations time and again have taken from other countries and made them poorer. Colonialism and slavery clashed cultures with a heady power imbalance. Jamaicans thought themselves to be fully British subjects, and felt immense pride in fighting as part of Britain in WW2. Cut to now, where the Windrush scandal threatened to take the rights and dignity away from members of an entire generation.
On Instagram I’ve seen the hordes of influencers and wannabes travelling the world to tick off as many countries as possible or to get the ultimate photo. You have to be beautiful and relatively well off to see the world to cure your #wanderlust. However with conflict, climate change and economic difficulty causing more and more people to uproot and head abroad, perhaps we need to review our perception of travel and borders. Of course no country could have completely open borders, each country needs to evaluate what is best for its citizens. But we have to see that travel is not just a luxury, but a necessity for everyone.
Freedom to pursue opportunity; be they in western countries or if powerful economies were devolved to developing nations; should be every single person’s birth right, not just through luck of the draw.