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In a world obsessed with passport tiers, citizenship is personal and political

By Robtel Neajai Pailey

Late last week, I was informed that I would not be able to travel to Dubai for an important meeting scheduled months ago.

Like other countries across the globe, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) halted travel for those with Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean passports during the height of the Ebola outbreak. It has not lifted these restrictions.

The miniature red suitcase I had packed lay abandoned on my wooden floor. I caressed my dark green Liberian passport as if to reassure this inanimate marker of identity that my citizenship was not on trial here.

The spectre of Ebola had simply triumphed over reason.

Yet, the irony of this episode hasn’t escaped me. Dubai is a hub for cross-continental travel. In 2013 alone, the UAE boasted the fifth largest international migrant pool in the world — hosting 7.8 million foreign residents out of a total population of 9.2 million. Furthermore, foreign labour migrants account for 90% of the country’s private workforce, mostly from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

Unlike the US and UK, where anti-immigrant sentiments have reached fever pitch, the UAE seems more pliant to international travellers. So, naturally, I thought it was odd when I attempted to complete the online visa form and Liberia was not listed as an option for “present nationality”. Nor were Guinea and Sierra Leone.

This was punishment for simply being born in Africa with a particular African passport. Even the organisers of the meeting were shocked, disbelief sprinkled in their conciliatory emails and phone calls. All diplomatic channels had proved futile. The verdict was irreversible. I would not be getting on that plush Emirates flight.


Never mind that Liberia was declared Ebola-free on May 9, exactly one month ago.

Never mind that I have not been to my homeland in over 10 months. Nor was I asked about recent travel there.

Never mind that my country and its people are slowly trying to recover from an invisible foe that killed nearly 5 000 and infected about 11 000.

In the past year, I’ve seen my passport scrutinised more intently than ever before, but the UAE blanket bias felt like adding salt to a fresh wound.

At first, I experienced blinding rage with a touch of indignation. The kind that gurgles in the pit of your gut, and then explodes.

Then I was amused by the absurdity of it all. If I were travelling directly from Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone and had a passport from a country on UAE’s list of exemptions, I would have gotten a visa on arrival with ease. No questions asked.

Mild acceptance slowly seeped in, reminding me that we maintain immigration hierarchies as a form of erasure and silencing. In our obsession with citizenship tiers, west is best. North trumps south. And white is inevitably right.

Never mind black/brown solidarity. Or does that even exist?

I have shied away from returning home fearing the kind of immobility that sees people not as complex beings but as nameless, faceless “threats” to national security. A sedentarist kind of metaphysic that keeps certain people in their place.

People like me.

Truth be told, the natural human compulsion for mobility is currently under threat because of irrational immigration bans such as the UAE’s.

For all the rhetoric about globalisation’s free flow of ideas, capital and technology, the world remains obsessed with restricting the movement of people who don’t fit into our neat boxes of what is tolerable or even desirable. The UAE saga is a microcosm of a larger debate about the need for immigration reforms worldwide.

The scapegoating of migrants across the globe deflects attention from the fact that most countries have failed to improve the quality of life of their domestic citizens. Afro-phobic attacks in South Africa, Australia’s Pacific Solution, and the plight of Rohingya Muslims off the coast of Indonesia are extreme examples. Immigration is framed as a zero-sum game, with finite rights and resources available to a select few.

I watch migrants who look like me risk their lives on sardine-packed, rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean, and know intuitively that they wouldn’t flee if they had a choice. With each desperate attempt to cross over, what they are effectively saying is that Europe must make amends for waging unjustifiable wars and supporting authoritarian regimes in some of their countries of origin.

Centuries ago, Africans were so eager to escape lives of bondage, some dove to sudden death in the Atlantic. They were the first forced migrants I can recall. Now, many of us travel across these same waters for short, medium and long-term trips. Not because of some deep, abiding love for life abroad, but because it gives us a measure of flexibility. It keeps us physically connected to the rest of the world.

And for someone like me with chronic wanderlust, the ability to travel unencumbered is almost as necessary as oxygen itself.

Although a self-professed transnational, I used to be suspicious of Liberians who changed their nationality out of convenience. But after interviewing more than 200 of us across five urban centres in West Africa, North America and Europe for my doctoral thesis on citizenship construction and practice, I have become more empathetic. Many of us make the switch because of the access so easily denied me by the UAE.

But we shouldn’t have to.

I can’t say I would ever consider exchanging my passport for another, especially since Liberia prohibits dual citizenship. Yet, the UAE debacle has shaken me to the core. It’s made me acutely aware that citizenship is both personal and political.

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author based at SOAS, University of London.


  • Archbishop Tutu Fellows comprise dynamic young African professionals awarded the fellowship in recognition of their leadership qualities and the role they are currently playing in contributing towards the continent’s development. The Tutu Fellows are practitioners spread across various social, political, economic, environmental and activist sectors throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last six years the Tutu fellows have formed a strong alumnus of leaders communicating across country borders with the aim of realising the potential and power of a truly pan-African continent. The opinions shared by the Archbishop Tutu Fellows are not necessarily those of the African Leadership Institute or of our patron, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.


  1. russell swanborough russell swanborough 11 June 2015

    “…what they are effectively saying is that Europe must make amends for waging unjustifiable wars and supporting authoritarian regimes in some of their countries of origin”.
    That has to be one of the most obtuse justifications for blame that I have ever read. “It’s not our fault” just took on a new level of myth and fantasy.
    I give up.

  2. nickn4m3 nickn4m3 11 June 2015

    I guess it is easier to moan about countries that do look after their citizens than it is to get your own country to look after its own citizens, especially if you are African. Fix your own country before you moan about other countries.

  3. 1Zoo1 1Zoo1 12 June 2015

    The problem is at home, not abroad. Its not the UAE’s problem, its your problem because of the incredibly poor record of African governance. Its not a race thing in case anyone jumps about. Its simply that we need to complete the independence procedure and gain more democracy – break the cycle of the Big Men.

  4. Haiwa tigere Haiwa tigere 12 June 2015

    You whinge a lot. So Liberia was declared ebola free 1 month ago. They will get to you in due course. It might take a long time 3 months to a year. You take it too personally. One man cost the USA a lot of money when he slipped into Dallas with Ebola.These people are not going to dissect your personal situation with you.

    Change you passport if you can/must if you think it helps.

  5. CapnVan CapnVan 12 June 2015

    “Centuries ago, Africans were so eager to escape lives of bondage, some dove to sudden death in the Atlantic. They were the first forced migrants I can recall.”

    Really? Never listened to reggae? What do you suppose all those references to Babylon refer to?

    Forced migration is as old as humanity. Do you really suppose that, as humanity spread out of Africa, each and every one of them did it out of wanderlust?

  6. Richard Richard 12 June 2015

    “I give up.” That’s what he’s counting on.

  7. Richard Richard 12 June 2015

    Most of these migrants are Africans, who, having successfully fought off imperialism, now find themselves worse off. I don’t recall anybody supporting sub-Saharan African regimes, from whence most of these “migrants” (read illegal immigrants) originate. If Africans are scrutinised more than others, it’s because they tend not to go home. Why should countries commit national suicide to accommodate Africans? Already in the UK, Africans and Asians make up 1/3 of all primary school admissions. “Africa for the Africans!” came the cry, and was much applauded. Asians were expelled, whites from Zimbabwe treated like dogs. Time to take responsibility for your decisions and actions.

  8. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 17 June 2015

    As much as I empathise with your problem, Ebola is a VERY scary disease. The way it devastated Liberia was frightening. It is a horrifying way to die so I can also empathise with the world paranoia about Ebola

  9. Docpam Docpam 22 June 2015

    It is just red tape which has not been thought through properly which is preventing you from visiting, nothing personal against Liberia or yourself.

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