In July 2019, before world travel buckled under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic, Maliha Fairooz was waiting in the immigration queue at Cape Verde's airport, a small island country in the Atlantic Ocean.
Two immigration officers came up. They looked at several passports waiting in the queue and ultimately asked two Liberian men and Fairooz, a Bangladeshi passport holder, to step aside. When asked what the problem was, "He said it was just security protocol," Fairooz recalled.
What followed not only shocked the traveller but also gave her post-traumatic stress disorder. After showing all the documents necessary to visit Cape Verde - visa and airport tax (paid online), reservations in two different hotels and a flight ticket out of the country - Fairooz was asked to collect all her luggage. She even showed the officer her Goal Global Sierra Leone work ID.
The immigration officer who was handling the case was uninterested, according to Fairooz, to listen to her. The same immigration officer, after some hours had already passed, told the three detainees that they would be sent back to Senegal. This was problematic.
Not only would that upend Fairooz's travel plans but it also meant that she would be stranded in Senegal with a single-entry visa. "That is not my problem, that is your problem and the problem of the airline that brought you here," Fairooz remembered being told by the immigration officer when she pleaded to be sent to Europe instead.
Fairooz is not alone. There are countless examples of Bangladeshi travellers facing similar problems at airports, even with all necessary and valid documents in hand, on account of the 'weak' passport they hold - which is of course never explained as such, but labelled as a 'security protocol.'
The strength of a passport is determined by how many countries the passport can access without a visa. For a traveller, this essentially means for how many countries he/she can buy a ticket, carry a valid passport and just show up at the immigration counter in airports (or water and land borders).
Bangladeshi passports ranked 108th in the annual Henley Passport Index 2021, with 40 visa-free travel destinations. To visit Cape Verde islands, Bangladeshi passports require a visa on arrival; which Fairooz paid for online in advance.
In 2019, before Fairooz was led to a corridor with two rooms - a holding cell where she spent 17 hours - she noticed a pattern. The ones who were being asked to step aside from the queue on that summer day were solo travellers of colour at the Cape Verde airport.
"My British friends travelled to Cape Verde sometime after me," said Fairooz, "They did not face any sort of harassment or hassle while passing through immigration."
Fairooz, an aid worker by profession, recently finished a tour of the Caribbeans and visited 93 countries thus far on her Bangladeshi passport. Throughout her travels, she had encountered immigration cells, deportation (Macedonia in 2016 after the Holey Artisan attack), body checks and explosives checks (primarily in Europe), and in Fairooz's personal experience, the Balkan region (except Serbia) and the Maldives were particularly welcoming to her green passport.
"Travelling is a game of privilege," said Fairooz, who also explained that she is well aware of her own privilege. "And what about those who don't have access to the same resources as me?," she said.
Fairooz's mother, who works at the UN, had to make several calls to mobilise Cape Verde UN office personnel to go pick Fairooz up from the holding cell in the summer of 2019.
The usual suspects?
Bangladeshis have noticed how travellers with different passports standing before and after them were left unbothered when they were singled out, even when travelling in groups.
Oishin Ghurnee was travelling to Greece from the United Kingdom with four of her British and European friends. She was a student at the time. While passing through immigration, she was the only person who was asked to explain her intent of visit and how long she would be staying. "It was subtle," said Ghurnee, "like an act of microaggression."
Some people may not even realise that they are being asked a few extra questions or how the tone of the immigration officer changes when they hand in their passports, "It is definitely the little things," she explained. "You can pick up on it from the start, especially once you have travelled a little. There is definite irritation in their tones"
"Oh I certainly have noticed the tone," said Fairooz, "..in a lot of airports, when they speak down to me. It is [especially] interesting to me when an immigration officer is a person of colour. It almost felt like they were saying, 'How dare you come or travel here?'"
Ghurnee, a lecturer at PrimeAsia university in Dhaka, has travelled to 13 countries so far. And not only foreign airports but even the Bangladeshi immigration officers also do not let up. "On my solo trips, I have been asked if I have a husband or boyfriend," said Ghurnee, "I bet they would not dare ask the same questions to a solo female traveller passing through but with a different passport, say Australian.."
Sometimes in some parts of the world, airport authorities are not fully aware of how a Bangladeshi passport looks like. "I have seen how they look at my passport as if it is fake or just made up," said Tasnim Ferdous, who is currently doing her master's in architecture in Winnipeg, Canada.
"At the Laos airport, particularly," said Ferdous, "I was detained for nearly two hours, because they thought I was there illegally." Perhaps it is because so many Bangladeshis have stayed back in these countries, Ferdous speculated, however, whatever the case may be, travellers should not be subjected to stereotypes and racial profiling based on their passports.
Love thy neighbour
Despite being surrounded by India, travelling there has proved cumbersome for many Bangladeshis. "My travel visa expired once when I was in India," said Isha Rahman. "And although there was a process already in place to apply for an exit permit, it was a very, very anxiety-filled period for me.
I did not want to get stuck there. And it was baffling to me, how I could not just cross the border with a visa - the countries are right next to each other" she exclaimed with a hint of frustration.
In the designated immigration office, where Rahman was sent to apply for the temporary permit, she met many other Bangladeshis, stuck in bureaucratic limbo. "I remember speaking to a middle-aged man who did not understand the paperwork well," Rahman recalled. "I explained to him how he needs to have proof of hotel accommodation, or basically a place where he is staying because he needs to give the office an address. I told him to go to the mosque for the night's shelter."
So how is the 'passport ranking' created?
The annual Henley Passport Index was created 16 years ago by a British firm named Henley and Partners. The index takes data from the International Air Travel Association (IATA) and covers 199 passports and 227 travel destinations.
"We are investment migration advisory specialists rather than political commentators," said Sarah Nicklin, Group Head of Public Relations at Henley and Partners over an email. "However, what we have observed is that commonalities in history and economic status, shared foreign policy goals, and reciprocity come into play, as well as security, trade, and political alliances."
She explained, "There are many countries in the world that have wholesale bans on nationals of specific countries entering their borders or on their own nationals entering the borders of specific countries because of collapsed diplomatic relations."
"Another major driver of visa-policy decisions is the relative importance that a government places on tourism (including the annual targets for visitors it has). In the Middle East, we are seeing countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE heavily prioritising tourism as part of their long-term economic strategy," Nicklin stated in the email, "and such a prioritisation will see countries being very proactive about liberalising their internal visa policies."
"The state of our tourism industry is dismal," said Zamiul Ahmed, advisor, Tourism Developers Association of Bangladesh (TDAB). The management and infrastructure of the industry require improvement, but there doesn't seem to be any reason for optimism in that regard, according to Ahmed, who was the chairman for 20 years at TDAB.
Nicklin further added, in her email, "The most remarkable turnaround story on the index by far is the UAE, which continues its stellar ascendance. In 2011, the UAE was ranked 65th with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 67, while today, thanks to the Emirates' ongoing efforts to strengthen diplomatic ties with countries across the globe, it is ranked 16th with a score of 174."
Bangladesh's ranking in the Henley passport index fell from 68th rank in 2006 to 108th rank in 2021, with the highest rise by 12 places between 2012 (93rd) and 2013 (85th).
Studying in a foreign country requires a study permit/visa regardless of one's nationality. But it can be deduced that the paperwork is not as stringent for North Americans, Australians or Europeans as it is for Bangladeshi passport holders. "I had to reapply for my master's program and scholarship," said Rahman, "because I got my American embassy student visa interview appointment late due to heavy traffic." Unfortunately, her educational institution did not have a system to support deferrals. Rahman is currently residing in New York for her master's in architecture.
And not all embassies exist in Bangladesh. For instance, a Bangladeshi passport holder would have to physically go to India to apply for a Hungarian student visa, if he/she wants to study in Hungary.
Another group of travellers who face tribulations for the passport they hold is migrant workers. Over the last two decades or so, migrant travel agencies have sprouted across the capital city attesting to the hundreds of millions of dollars of remittance that flows in the country every month.
At the same time, it is not uncommon for a Bangladeshi passport holding migrant, even with the necessary work permit documents, to face discrimination or harassment at Bangladeshi airports. "They speak to us with such disrespect," said Rabiul Hasan, a Bangladeshi migrant worker from Chittagong who is based in Dubai, working as a cab driver. "I got aggressively questioned and even searched at Dhaka airport more than once, when I returned from Dubai," explained Hasan, "it is a lot to get used to."
Is travel easier on a foreign passport?
A dual citizenship holder, Sadin Khan, an engineer at Ford, attests to the positive. "It is so much easier, the questions reduce in number and the process feels smoother." Khan faced quite a bit of trouble because of his passport name Ahmed Khan, particularly after 9/11.
However, he uses his Canadian passport when he travels now. "One thing that is a prime example [of the benefits of Canadian passport] in my personal life is that because of it I was able to travel to Singapore as fast as I did when my father was taken there for medical treatment," Khan recalled, "if I was travelling with my green passport, I would have had to apply for a visa and wait for it to come through."
Ghurnee said, "I think it is a combination of skin colour, race and passport power, and certainly travel is easier with a foreign passport."
"The darker my skin colour got, the more difficult travelling gets in general," said Fairooz. Once, on another tour, she noticed how differently she was treated at airport immigration when she got tanned in the sun after a vacation.