Visa applications: emotional tax and privileged passports

Researcher-artist Bathsheba Okwenje contrasts the visa requirements for a Ugandan national visiting the UK with a UK national visiting Uganda. While highlighting how some passports carry certain privileges, more hidden is the emotional tax non-privileged passport-holders pay by wanting to explore the world, by needing to prove they are worthy of travel in a country that is not their own.

This post is part of a mini-series exploring the global inequalities of the visa system and its effects and first appeared on the Africa at LSE blog.

Visa requirements Ugandan national and UK national

I am a Ugandan national living in Rwanda. The items listed in the left hand column above, along with a 12-page visa application, were requirements for me to attain a visitor’s visa to the UK to attend an event at the London School of Economics, where my artwork was being exhibited.

It’s interesting to make a comparative list of visa requirements, highlighting that some people carry a passport with privileges, and others don’t. To me, it’s a clear illustration of the many divergent ways in which the world rises to meet and support those with privilege and the way it doesn’t for those without.

Visa list of requirements

It reminds me of a time some years ago when I was completing an MFA in the USA. We were heading back from a class trip to India. The scheduled plane was delayed or cancelled and we were put on a plane that transited in Munich. Due to the delay, we missed the connection and had to spend the night there. My fellow classmates, all of whom were American or Canadian, were given individual rooms at a nearby hotel for the night as well as complimentary dinner and breakfast. Because of my nationality, I was given a €10 voucher for dinner and breakfast and a military cot to sleep on in a discrete corner of the airport.

Military cot in airport terminal

These are the realities for those of us who carry passports with a certain classification, and who have the opportunity to venture out into the world. In addition to high charges, we pay an emotional tax, and we have to weigh this tax against the chance of leaving our countries to travel to and participate in the rest of the world.

Luggage bag

By the way, I’m not referring to the urgent need to migrate for economic, social, environmental or conflict reasons. I’m referring to those who have been presented with an option to travel, to physically experience and explore the diversity of people, thought, culture, education and experiences that the world offers. The tax we pay is emotional of having to prove we are worthy and deserving of this privilege. And we have to prove it at every point: in collating all the documentation required for the visa; engaging with immigration at the port of arrival; interacting with the people who we have travelled to experience feeling a need of justification. Then there is the toll of a possible rejection – a rejection which will affect every subsequent visa application for the rest of your life, because whether you have previously been denied a visa is a specific question on applications. This rejection becomes yet another obstacle to overcome, another area for you to prove that you are indeed worthy of travel and of being in a country that is not your own.

In spite of these humiliations and possibilities of rejection, and despite the irony given our global histories, we still persist.

Visa finger print

I was eventually granted the visa and did attend the LSE’s Africa Summit. My passport and application were sent to Pretoria for visa processing, and finally arrived in Kigali eight working days after I applied (note: I paid the expedited fee which would ensure that the application would be processed within five working days), and so I flew to London that evening. I was in the UK for exactly two and a half days. I was the only African artist whose work was exhibited at the Summit able to make the trip.

Queue for UK visa

The other artists? Well, they didn’t apply for the visa because the visa application was too cumbersome, or they were unable to travel because the visa processing took too long. Maybe some didn’t travel because their visa applications were rejected.

When we think about collaboration and knowledge exchange across borders and institutions, these manifestations of privilege and power should be considered. For many people, it is not as easy as merely saying ‘yes’ to the opportunity. If there is international travel involved, there is a risk underpinning that ‘yes’, and the ‘yes’ requires emotional and invisible labour.


All illustrations are by Charity Atukunda.

About the author

Bathsheba Okwenje is an interdisciplinary researcher-artist working at the intersection of information practices and aesthetics. Her work explores hidden histories, the interior lives of people and the interactions between them. Bathsheba is a member of the artist collective Radha May. She received her MFA from Rhode Island School of Design.


Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below

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  1. Matthew Aijuka July 20, 2019 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    Very enlightening and sadly true. More needs to be done to improve the situation if global talent is to harnessed effectively. Thanks for the great share. Hopefully the ‘developed’ nations change this skewed policy.

  2. […] no question about your previous visa refusals or about your travel history. As Bathsheba Okwenje (2019) […]

  3. […] no question about your previous visa refusals or about your travel history. As Bathsheba Okwenje (2019) […]

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