Near the end of October, Malawi police made a harrowing discovery: a mass grave containing the freshly buried bodies of 29 suspected migrants from Ethiopia. Authorities suspect they were being ferried through a well-beaten smugglers’ route to South Africa, Africa’s wealthiest economy.
Here and there, I get the chance to seamlessly travel to far-off destinations with my Malawi passport and visa in hand. I am not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but each time I stare out of the plane window as my flight circles over the Mediterranean Sea I feel a gnawing sense of guilt about how “lucky” I am.
The fabulous blue waters of the Mediterranean hide a grisly reality: The seabed beneath the shimmering surface is an underwater tomb. What Pope Francis himself has described as “a vast cemetery” contains the never-to-be-recovered bodies of African migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Congo, Sudan, and other countries. But as October’s grisly discovery in Malawi makes clear, evidence of the subterranean world migrants like those buried in Malawi are forced to navigate—a violent, dangerous world, a liminal world where human life is stripped down to the struggle for bare survival, beyond the pale of legal citizen- or even personhood—can be found wherever we look, staining the very ground we walk on.
The unfathomable uncovering of a mass grave in my home district of Mzimba, Malawi, is a morbid indictment of the deadly global travel inequalities that we have been conditioned to simply accept as a product of “modernity.” On the continent of Africa, however, the vastly unequal circumstances of people attempting to move from one place to another today are a living residue of the violence of European colonialism.
For Africans, the unequal guarantee and enjoyment of the right to travel is a double-edged sword—applied to would-be travelers by fellow African countries on the one hand, and by the EU, the US, and most wealthy nations on the other. “A comparison of travel visa requirements in 1969 and 2010… reveals that while OECD country citizens can largely travel visa-free to many parts of the world, nationals from non-OECD countries, particularly from Africa, face high levels of travel restrictions (Mau et al. 2015),” Simona Vezzoli and Marie-Laurence Flahaux write in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. “Thus, a division exists between a group of countries whose nationals enjoy great freedom of movement and a larger group of countries whose nationals face great levels of restriction, leading to a ‘global mobility divide.’”
Many African countries, though nominally independent on paper, still maintain strict immigration regimes designed by French or British colonialists in the 1940s. Today, for example, a fellow African from Ghana, the first nation in Sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from European colonial rule, cannot fly into South Africa visa-free, and vice versa. Why? Part of the reason has to do with the fact that South Africa was one of the last African countries to achieve post-colonial independence. The stewards of South Africa’s racist Apartheid regime instituted tight visa restrictions, barring many African nationals from visiting South Africa to maintain white colonial privilege in the country. The post-Apartheid government of South Africa has rolled back much of the architecture of the past colonial visa regimes, but people from most African countries, like Ghana, still can’t visit easily, visa-free.
Adding to the indignity, many Africans today wishing to travel to South Africa are still required to submit a veritable mountain of bank statements, flight itineraries, proof of travel purpose, and hefty visa forms to VFS Global, a majority-US-owned company contracted by the South African government to process some immigration visas. According to its website, “VFS Global is the world’s largest visa outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide… VFS Global is majority-owned by funds managed by Blackstone, the world’s largest alternative asset manager.” Even after processing extensive paperwork and navigating the bureaucratic red tape, however, for many fellow Africans, securing a visa to visit South Africa is by no means guaranteed.
It’s not just South Africa, though. Other African nations still maintain a plethora of punishing intra-continental visa rules that would-be travelers have to navigate.
The systems designed to maintain and enforce the tangle of strict visa policies governing travel between nations on the continent shape the historical and political matrix of what Lena Laube describes as “border diplomacy.” In Africa, wealthier colonial states like South Africa used border exclusion policies for many purposes, including halting the movement of neighboring Africans who, the white ruling class feared, might “smuggle” in militant, anti-colonial sentiments that could “infect” the Black inhabitants of South Africa shackled within its colonial borders.
Today a quick Google Flights check will reveal it’s cheaper, easier, and faster for an African to fly from Lesotho to attend a conference in the Netherlands in Europe than for the same African to travel visa-free across Africa (say, from Lesotho to Algeria). It is a common joke among African travelers that it’s cheaper and quicker to fly from one African country to the next by first flying to Europe.
One of the main purposes of British and French efforts to etch colonial borders onto the African landscape was to keep African tribes in restricted “homelands” and curtail access to passports, which severely restricted their cross-border movements. Of course, the supreme goal was to have a ready pool of cheap, exploitable African labor stationed in one place. That such travel restriction regimes persist today means the racist legacy of colonialism is still written into the very geography of Africa.
It’s no wonder that one of the most uncomfortable realities of post-colonial travel is that a visitor bearing a passport from Canada, Australia, the US, or the EU can enjoy automatic, 90-day, visa-free entry into nearly all African countries. The finance minister of Zambia, for instance, gleefully announced in October the “waiver of visa requirements for China and other countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, European Union (EU) countries.”
The messaging is clear about which passport holders matter more than others. Africans are an afterthought. Our assumed mentality as Africans—an offshoot of this colonial travel architecture—is that “tourist” is mostly synonymous with fair-skinned European, US, or wealthy Asian nationals, while Black Africans are perennially coded as “immigrants” or “refugees.”
Adding more woe to the indignity of inter-Africa travel we already suffer, EU countries are continuously militarizing their borders to keep African immigrants and refugees out. Not a day goes by without countless Africans of higher social standing (academics, businesspeople, students, skilled workers, etc.) complaining about the arduous paperwork, vetting processes, and financial costs incurred just for the sake of getting a Western visa to attend a conference or similar function. “Passport privilege” and global travel inequities are so pervasive that there are fierce calls for some global conferences to be held here in Africa, where everyone can reasonably attend, rather than in the EU and US, where mostly white audiences with privileged nationalities can attend.
However, praise must be given to the East Africa Community (EAC) of nations, which have collectively innovated a mutual arrangement whereby any citizen of any EAC country just needs an ID, not even a passport, to travel within the bloc. This arrangement is helpful because it means that citizens of the East Africa bloc of countries don’t have to apply for pricey passports simply to travel to neighboring countries. Moreover, the simple use of IDs for crossing EAC borders has heralded a new era enabling citizens of those partner countries to stay in each other’s territories for up to six months without needing a mountain of paperwork to fill. This is not only good for social unity and peace, but makes travel and immigration quite affordable for those who would otherwise be barred from it by the cost burden alone.
Despite these encouraging developments, we still have a long way to go toward securing safe and affordable passage across the continent. Colonially inspired travel restriction and visa enforcement regimes have forced countless less privileged migrants, like the 29 deceased Ethiopians found in Malawi, to pay thousands of dollars to be smuggled across their own continent. In the end, they paid with their very lives. It’s an unforgivable stain on our humanity that fellow Africans still die torturous and unaccountable deaths just because they can’t secure visa-free travel within their continent.