Beyond ‘legal’ terms

Hello everyone, my name is Anna and I am part of the bordertales team. In this post I am going to give accounts of my personal experiences with restrictive visa policies. Due to my German passport, I have been lucky to be able to travel to countries such as Cameroon and Ghana and to make lots of experiences which have consequently shaped my worldview enormously. However, the friends I made along these various trips do not enjoy the same opportunities as myself, due to the stereotypes and suspicion attributed to African nationals travelling abroad. Through stories of friends, as well as my own attempt to invite a friend for a visa, I realized that to travel for Africans is very difficult and not a matter of having enough money and time, but a matter of luck and relations. Only very privileged citizens, or as the law would phrase it, “the ones who are able to prove their intention to return” are eligible to receive a tourist visa. However, I ask myself how can someone prove his/her intention to return?

When Ghanaians want to apply for a German tourist visa, they have to patiently wait for an appointment and fulfil an array of requirements that include the payment of a visa fee, the presentation of several documents, such as an invitation letter, a health insurance, a return flight ticket and proof of enough financial means during their stay abroad. The processing of legal documents can already pose an obstacle on Ghanaian applicants, because state bodies work differently and less reliably compared to Germany. To acquire legal documents such as birth certificates or passports Ghanaians are left to engage in corruption and work with mediators. Although they cannot be certain that they would get the visa, applicants have to pay visa fees. Yet, even if one fulfils all the requirements needed, the result still depends on the subjective judgement by a consulate officer who conducts the interview. During such interviews Ghanaians have to prove ‘strong ties’ to their country of origin and overcome the suspicion of becoming an illegal immigrant. Such legal grounds for the decision making is not as transparent and obvious as embassies present it to be, this I will elaborate more in the following part. Through the tedious application process and the suspicion brought against Africans during their applications, foreign embassies imply that every applicant might have the intention to want to stay abroad. In reality however, this is not the case. I have many friends who live decent lives in Ghana and appreciate the kind of lifestyle and exposure their home countries offer. Nevertheless, one cannot blame them to want to explore the world and all it has to offer or to meet their friends and family. So far cultural exchange between Europe and Africa has been one-sided. That is the reason why Africans mainly rely on images of Europe presented on TV and social media or on stories of people that went abroad, which often do not present the reality, because it is difficult to show the ‘negative’ aspects of life in Europe.

Although all my friends had presented the required documents and had paid the visa fee and even provided the financial support, they were denied the visa because their intention to return was not given. This was also the case when I invited my friend to apply[ for a visit recently. Although we presented all the required documents and my parents confirmed to bail for his stay, the German embassy denied him the visa, because his ‘intention to return was not given’. This experience was very frustrating for both of us, because the possibility to see each other soon became impossible. After a failed visa application, one has to wait a minimum of three months before being able to reapply or to apply with another embassy. For him it was even more frustrating as he had invested a lot of energy and money into this. Furthermore, he had worked together with a lot of Germans in Ghana that do not have to go through all of this when they want travel to Ghana. All these experiences make me ask myself according to which criteria embassies make their decisions.

From stories of friends I know that it is the consulate officer decides who gets the visa after the interview. Unfortunately, consulate officers also tend to ask personal questions, which blur their opinions and makes them feed into stereotypes. When I invited my male friend for a tourist visa they asked him whether him and I were in a relationship. I was appalled at the audacity they had to plunder into the personal affairs of their applicants and wondered why it would even matter at all? Seemingly, relationships between Ghanaians and Germans is a ground for applicants to seem suspicious of not wanting to return home. Such a way of thinking about binational relationships implies that such relationships would not be driven by mutual affection, but by the economic interests of the applicant. Hence, more reason for the German state to protect its citizens from exploitation. This interpretation of relationships stems from a Eurocentric imagination of love, which is exclusive of personal interests. In fact, in almost all relationships, weather binational, biracial or simply German, economic factors play a role. Besides relationships which make the applicant suspicious, consulate officers base their decision on the applicants’ behaviour. Even when all the requirements are fulfilled the embassy can still tick that the intention to return is not given. Thus, the pressure to overcome suspicion during the interview makes it even more difficult for applicants to not appear suspicious. Obviously, it seems to me that anybody would be nervous in such a state. I’m giving this example to show the potential for misinterpretations. In Germany to look someone into the eyes is expected and to not do so is regarded as a sign of falsehood. While in Ghana to look someone in the eyes is a taboo. Very often consulate officers do not know about the life of their applicants, as they often tend to live in isolated neighbourhoods only having minimal contact to the locals. Consequently, these interviews are very uncomfortable and costly for the applicants and the decision to qualify for a visa is dependent on the subjective judgement of the consulate officer, which often tends to be one-sided and eurocentric.

To conclude, immigration laws are not as transparent and justified as people in Europe might assume them to be. The reality is that the issuing of visas is restricted by laws created in Europe and the US and which is based on an array of discriminations and European cultural assumptions. All of the above feed into the legitimization of states interests to control the mobility of Africans. These restrictive and discriminative visa policies also have social consequences and affects the way Africans think about Europe and vice versa. They also affect the ways Africans have to engage in other forms of migration. By reading more about international migration of Africans to Europe I realized that a lot of the knowledge people in Europe have is informed by simplistic and false media representations of migration. But all this could be topics of following posts or discussions.