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Passport Inequality: A Journey from Belarus

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

My situation sucks. My passport sucks. However, the more I travel, the more I understand that the problem is not just with my passport; it affects more countries than I realized. I’ve learned there is no such thing as “passport privilege,” but “passport inequality” is a real issue.

I have a lot to tell you, my friend.

Here is a short recap of my story:

In 2020, there were protests in Belarus against unfair elections. Large crowds gathered at demonstrations, and a lot of people were put in prison. I was lucky to be safe at that moment, but to keep myself safe, I had to leave my country.

Belarusian protests against unfair elections.

I’m Kate, a digital nomad from Belarus who has been moving around the world for more than two years. Well, parts of it. It was, and still is, a hard time.

At the beginning of 2021, I returned home to figure out some stuff. By summer, I had left again. I didn’t feel I could live in this Belarus ever again, and I still don’t. I am still out.

When I left, I didn’t have a lot of options to choose from because of my passport. In the first year, COVID-19 made my life a real challenge (did I tell you that I had no vaccination?). I was moving back and forth between three countries—Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine—until I got a Polish visa. No, it was not difficult to get it, but it was a big step. If you have this type of visa I applied for (humanitarian), you should consider that you will not go home for a while.

I came to Europe, we said goodbye to the pandemic, and life was supposed to get better. Right? Not at all. They don’t tell you that, with new opportunities, you also get new troubles. But first things first.

The first time I understood that your passport is everything

Georgia was the first country on my endless list of visited places. There, I met hundreds of people from all over the world. They showed me their lives, their experiences, and their backgrounds. I was happy to be in the middle of such an incredible international community, and especially happy to be an equal member of this group, not “Belarusian who?”

Yeah, I thought we were equal. But…

Once, I took a small road trip with friends. We went to the seaside, just chilled at the beach, and drank some beers—classic. On the way back, the police stopped us to check on the driver—classic as well. Our driver had been drinking. It’s legal in Georgia to drink and drive, but only if you drink a certain amount. The guy had had a bit more.

The policemen took his driver’s license and said he couldn’t drive anymore. He was Indian, by the way. Someone else should’ve taken the wheel. In the car were three other people: me, a Belarusian, and two girls from the US. We all drank the same amount of beers, which meant we all couldn’t drive.

I was rejected; that was understandable. But once the policemen saw American driver’s licenses, they made their choice.

“One of you should drive,” said the officers to the girls.

“But we drank alcohol,” they replied.

“You drive.”

They drove.

Kate on the road trip with her friends.

This might have been an exceptional situation – but no

Since then, I have started to think about the differences between my and “their” passports. I discussed it with all the other internationals I met, and I was shocked at how bad it could be in someone else's shoes.

When I tried to make plans with my Turkish friend, we discovered we had limited options of where to go together. He was so sure the reason was his nationality. After we checked the Passport Index, we were surprised that it was mine causing the issues. With a Belarusian passport, you can go without a visa or easily enter 92 countries. With Turkish – to 125. Unexpected, right?

After I moved to Europe, my list of friends was extended by many travelers from around the world. I would love to go on a trip with most of them, and I would love to visit all of them in their countries. Why not go to the UK? I can’t without a visa. To Australia? Impossible. To Morocco? No way (there is a way even for Russians, but not for Belarusians, although nowadays people say we are the same). My passport limits me a lot. The worst thing? I can only apply for a visa from within the country of my residence, which is Belarus, the place I’m not going to any time soon.

I had trouble even entering the countries that were supposed to be “friendly” with us. During a trip from Poland to Georgia, I was questioned at two airports. While crossing the land borders between Georgia and Armenia last year, I always spent 10–20 minutes explaining what the purpose of the entrance was and what I was going to do. You might say this is standard procedure, but I have witnessed how my experience compares to others. In the first instance, I was with my Dutch friend, who just received a welcoming “gamarjoba” (“hello” in Georgian) from customs before being easily waved through the gate. The other trouble occurred when I was traveling with Frenchies who crossed borders in seconds. I was the one they were always waiting for. The war in Ukraine triggered a worry in people’s minds about Eastern Europeans.

Since last year, every day has been a new challenge

Now I’m trying not to move across countries where I must go through customs. I avoid answering where I am from and what my story is. After leaving home, I soon understood – the further I go, the easier it is to be me. The closer I am to Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, the better people think they “know” who I am.

I’m Belarusian. I was shamed on the streets of Georgia, the roads of Europe, and on the border of Ukraine. You probably know why.

Because of labels, opinions, views, and passports, it’s hard for me to live a normal life. It is, for example, hard to find an official volunteering project abroad, apply to university, or get documents. Everything should “fit the system,” but the system does not care a lot about your personal story.

Why am I so sure? My Russian friend went through all of this. He left his country to not join the war against Ukraine, but every time he’s tried to find a way to stay legally in the EU, he gets the same reply: “Want a visa? Go to your country to apply.”

What if we can’t go home? There is never an answer to that question.

On the other hand, Americans are allowed to apply for EU visas from any country in the world. A few places do not accept applications from within the country, but the options are much less limited for those with American passports.

Yeah, the situation of my friend sucks. My situation sucks. Our passports suck, for sure. But we were lucky enough to end up where we are right now.

There are people in this world who are in a much worse position. I know them – my friends from Iran, Nigeria, Lebanon, Egypt, and India – who need visas to visit almost every country. They want to travel the world, but it’s not easy for them, it’s beyond difficult.

An important insight I gained during these two years: there is always a way. You just have to be ready for a lot of challenges.

The other side of the coin

It’s easy to talk about “passport inequality” when you are from a country that withholds a lot of options, but this problem also exists for those from developed countries.

Kate and her Dutch friend.

I have a friend from the Netherlands who has been traveling the world for three years. He planned to reach Japan from Europe by land without taking any flights. He started his journey during the pandemic but struggled to get very far. He spent three months getting documents to enter China. No approval.

But I can go to China – I’m from Belarus.

I guess he would like to trade passports to continue his adventure. I would like to trade my passport for almost all my travels, but you get what you get. I’m still with the Belarusian one; he’s still with the Dutch. And we’re still somewhere in the world thinking about how to make this world more logical and right.

Edited by Sophia Pedigo


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