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.

a few words to start with

Hey, I’m Frieda and I am part of the border tales Team. At least so far as you can consider it as a Team because border tales is of course open for everyone and there should be an equal chance to contribute. But we’re organizing the website, so I’ll call it a team. In the last blog entry you already heard Eric’s story and I want to tell you a little bit more about the background of this video.

One year ago, we had the idea to start something like border tales and at that time I seriously had no idea how complicated it is going to be. The idea came to Kathrin an me as we were spending some time in Ghana, where both of us had stayed for a voluntary service back in 2016. Since then we had heard quite a lot of stories from friends who had tried to visit Germany and were not able to, because their visa got refused. I met Eric, who is with me in the picture, and we became friends. Unforunately, I had lost contact with him and the last thing I had heard from him was that he was trying to get a visa from the German embassy a few months ago. A business partner invited him to meet in person and discuss a potential partnership. Eric is running a local NGO that does mostly community work in small villages in the Central Region of Ghana. He had already planned his trip to Germany when we talked the last time and he asked me if we could meet. Unfortunately, I was travelling myself at that time and we couldn’t see each other. When I planned my trip to Ghana, I contacted him, because I was sad, we had lost contact. Eventually, we met when I arrived, and I asked him about his time in Germany and how he liked it. I didn’t even question that he had been there, because everything seemed to be settled when he wrote those months ago. He laughed and told me he had not been able to travel, because his visa was refused. First, I thought he was joking. By that time, I already knew that it can be a struggle to get a Schengen visa and was not as naïve as to think everyone has the same chances. But obviously, I was still naïve because I had assumed, that there are less obstacles if someone is invited by a business partner for an official purpose. I was proofed wrong and was honestly shocked. How could that be possible? Eric and I talked a lot about the visa issues, the following days. When I told my friend Kathrin about Eric’s story, we thought it would be good to share it and make people aware of this kind of problem. I mean I had not known about the seriousness of the inequalities and I had been in contact with it for years. Still, I lived in that bubble that you’re in when you have a “powerful” passport like the German one. I can’t travel whenever or wherever I want but that’s due to the cost or probably a lack of time. So, if I really wanted to, I could just work more and then take a vacation to travel. Even though I would probably not see it like this, it still lies in my own responsibility and power to travel to another country. It would not really occur to me, that my visa application could be refused. Also, because with a German passport I can travel to more than 160 countries without even applying for a visa in advance. If I don’t want to go to North Korea or I indicate to be part of a terrorist organisation – I’m basically free to go wherever I want. Important to notice, that I’m white and female. With another skin colour or appearance, I might have more problems even though I have a German citizenship.

It is not a surprise that there is not a big protest against the EU’s visa politics, because people don’t really have the chance to experience what’s going on. Obviously, there are inequalities within the EU as well and with a German passport you are the luckiest one. But anyway, as an EU citizen you can cross so many borders without really thinking about it and I think it makes us forget about hard borders, that are still existing. Especially, if your country is surrounded only by other EU member states.

So, I asked Eric if he would be willing to share his experience and he was excited to join and tell people what’s going on. That’s how we got started with border tales.

Almost one year later and a lot of time invested in this “project” I must realize that I’m still as naïve as before and I will never be in the position to judge a situation which I can never fully understand, because I’m just too privileged. There has been criticism that we, the border tales “Team”, as a group of white German women, should not talk about inequalities that don’t include us. We put a lot of thought into this and got to a point where we asked if we should rather stop. Before anything was started. Nothing has been published yet. However, I do not fully agree, that we are out of this discussion. Borders affect anyone. Maybe, the effect we experience is less restrictive, but everyone is involved. And because of that it is my opinion that everyone should be involved. In the discussion. And the reason why I want to take initiative and continue with border tales is that we can reach those people who are less affected, just because we live in Germany. Still, I experience that it is much more difficult than I thought in the beginning. We don’t want to create a campaign about racist/ discriminating visa policies, because that would indeed be weird from our perspective, as we would always be in a documenting position. But we want to have a space for discussion where everyone is invited, and we can take part as well. That means, different perspectives, all kinds of different stories, no fixed matter that excludes anyone. So obviously the discussion can move on beyond stories about visa experiences. Anyway, this was the topic that initially brought up the idea to create border tales. That is why for me – and I think I can speak for the rest of the Team as well – it’s important to have a closer look at this topic.

Eric’s Story

In this video, Eric from Ghana talks about his experience with the German embassy in Accra. He applied for a visa some time ago and wanted to share his personal application process. What do you think about Eric’s visa story? Please share your comments and questions!

Music for open borders

The German singer DOTA wrote a song about borders and their consequences. She sings about the inequalities and conflicts that borders are causing and she demands a new passport for everyone. A passport for “habitants of Earth” or “global citizens”. With a passport like this there would be no more legal imbalances between people from different countries and everyone would have the same privileges of international mobility.

This song was a great inspiration for us. The idea of a global passport is not a new one but in the context of “refugee crises” and increasing social disparities it is now more relevant than ever before. We want to share DOTA’s song to share idea of equal citizenship. What do you think about a passport that says “habitant of the Earth”? Would you like to have one? Do you think that could solve any problems or conflicts? Please feel free to share your opinion about this!

And now enjoy DOTA’s song “Grenzen” (borders). It is in German but there are English subtitles.