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Unilateral Passport Power is Entrenched in the Pandemic Era



Dr. Juerg Steffen is CEO of Henley & Partners and author of definitive books on high-net-worth relocation to Austria and Switzerland.

After 18 months, the dramatic impact of the pandemic has slowly begun to lessen. Regular international flights have resumed in some parts of the world, and some of the more stringent travel restrictions are easing. Having endured so much uncertainty over the past year and a half, these gains are to be welcomed, but as the latest results and research from the Henley Passport Index show, considerable obstacles nonetheless lie before us on our road back to normality.

Some highfliers on the index have stringent bans on entry 

As the latest ranking indicates, proliferating barriers to entry since the pandemic was declared have resulted in the widest global mobility gap in the index’s 16-year history, with passport holders from top ranking Japan and Singapore able to travel visa free to 166 more destinations than Afghan nationals, who sit at the bottom of the index with access to just 26 countries without requiring a visa in advance. New research commissioned by Henley & Partners indicates that this disconcerting discrepancy could actually increase: analysis of exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reveals that countries with high-ranking passports, mostly in the global north, have enforced some of the strictest inbound Covid-19-related travel restrictions, while many countries with lower-ranking passports, mostly in the global south, have relaxed their borders without seeing this openness reciprocated.

GMR - Steffen

Japan shares top spot on the index with Singapore thanks to their impressive visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 192 out of a possible 199, yet it currently bars almost all foreign nationals from entry. Germany sits alongside South Korea in joint-2nd place with a visa-free/visa-on arrival score of 190, but visitors from over 100 countries are prevented from entering. At the lower end of the index, Egypt, ranked 97th, has no travel restrictions in place yet its citizens can access just 51 destinations around the world without acquiring a visa in advance. Similarly, Kenya, which ranks 77th, has no travel bans in place but its passport holders are able to access just 72 destinations without a prior visa.

As pandemic-related restrictions become entrenched, we are likely to see the already significant global mobility divide between advanced and developing economies widen even further. Recent adjustments to the Covid-ban policies of the UK and the USA, which share 7th place on the index with a visa-free score of 185, have done little to alter growing inequalities when it comes to travel freedom and access.

Covid restrictions now useful tools to contain movement?

Looking at these developments, experts suggest that policies initially introduced to contain the spread of Covid-19 are now being conveniently applied to contain mobility from the global south to the global north. Prof. Mehari Taddele Maru, a Fellow at the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies, observes that for some time the global north has enforced harsh migration containment strategies through rigidly applying border controls, preventing people from moving. Prof. Maru points out that the travel restrictions that were initially introduced to contain the pandemic have conveniently become useful additions to the toolbox of migration containment instruments for the global north to contain visitors from the global south.

As advanced economies contemplate a return to business as usual, it is clear that many challenges lie ahead. In the UK, for instance, restrictions to international movement are likely to affect travelers to and from the UK well into 2022. As Dr. Hannah White OBE, Deputy Director of the Institute for Government, says, ongoing requirements for expensive tests and quarantine periods are throwing significant obstacles in the way of international travelers.

In the USA, convoluted and ever-changing travel restrictions are also causing setbacks. While the country has lifted restrictions for travelers from the EU, the bloc recently voted to remove America from its ‘safe list’ of countries. As Director of applied research at NewCities, Greg Lindsay observes, this has been the case throughout the pandemic — passports once thought to be unassailably strong in terms of ease of travel and access have faltered due to high Covid-19 infection rates and shifting politics — and continue to do so. Lindsay points out that the anticipated return to normality as the year draws to an end has not materialized quite as hoped and instead looks set to be a hotly contested competition between vaccination rates and Covid variants.

Endless barriers to movement on the horizon

The challenges faced by the developed world are significant, but they pale in comparison to the obstacles faced by countries with low-ranking passports, where multiple pandemic-related barriers to movement seem likely to linger even as many of them reopen their borders in a bid to revive travel and tourism and reboot economic growth. Travelers from these countries tend to be subjected to strict quarantine requirements whether they are vaccinated or not, meaning that at present they remain effectively locked out of most of the world.

Erol Yayboke, senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, goes so far as to suggest that the pandemic’s sustained impact on global human mobility means that there may never be a post-pandemic world to navigate. Yayboke says that in future the rising need for people to move away from many parts of the world in order to survive, which is being exacerbated by climate change, will be thwarted by barriers to movement that have been put in place due to the pandemic. Like the virus, such barricades will no doubt remain for the foreseeable future, and some leaders are likely to find it difficult to remove them as they serve multiple purposes.

The value of domicile optionality needs no further explanation

The value of a passport that ranks highly on the Henley Passport Index has always been indisputable, opening the doors of the world for its holder. One of the most dramatic changes wrought by the pandemic is the fact that in addition to a strong passport, a widely accepted vaccination certificate is now absolutely key for those individuals who wish to take advantage of the incrementally slow gains in travel freedom that have been made over the past few months.

For high-net-worth individuals, access to stable and high-quality healthcare jurisdictions in countries that offer globally accepted vaccines is more highly prized than ever, and the value of dual citizenship and having a range of residence options that enable a transnational lifestyle for families, now speaks for itself. For the countries that are able to offer investment migration programs, the security they provide acts as a safeguard against the economic volatility that continues to overwhelm the world. For our clientele, it is now self-evident that acquiring a second citizenship or alternative residence — or for many, both — is the foundational building block for a safe and stable future.

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Henley & Partners assists international clients in obtaining residence and citizenship under the respective programs. Contact us to arrange an initial private consultation.


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