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Some scholars are more equal than others: Visa barriers, passport privilege, and global academic mobility

ISSN: 2396-9601 (Online)
Social Psychological
Volume 24 Number 2
Autumn 2022
Social Psychological Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, Autumn 2022 15
Some scholars are
more equal than
others: Visa barriers,
passport privilege,
and global academic
Arda Bilgen & Özden Melis Uluğ
URING A RECENT conversation with a group of colleagues about international confer-
ences ‘going in-person’ after a long time, we realised that everyone, almost unani-
mously, was very enthusiastic and excited about this return to the old normal. The room
was full of joy when they shared how they would do ‘conference-hopping’ across multiple
countries located exclusively in North America and Western Europe, how they planned to visit
additional countries en route, or how they would ‘just spend the weekend’ in the conference
venue and return home.
The atmosphere was indeed bustling with energy and positivity, yet we remained silent and
just nodded with blank smiles on our faces. When someone nally asked which conferences we
would like to attend this year, we said we would attend only one at best. We had to kindly remind
our colleagues, all of whom were from the Global North (GN)1, that international travel was not
as easy, affordable, and straightforward as they would imagine for those who came from the Global
South (GS). We explained how time-consuming, costly, and humiliating the visa process often was
and shared some personal stories where our visa applications were found inadmissible or rejected
in the past despite being awless (see Uluğ, 2022) Some colleagues showed genuine sympathy and
support, some just half-heartedly said ‘Wow!’, ‘Jesus!’, ‘Really?’ or ‘Oh, that’s terrible!’, probably
to look interested. Then the topic changed, and life went on as usual.
Not for everyone, though. We are two scholars from the GS who spent the last 13 years
studying and working at various higher education (HE) institutions located in the GN. We are
writing this brief commentary to challenge the wholly simplistic and plainly erroneous idea
that all scholars enjoy the right to free movement in general, and the global academic mobility
in particular, in the same and equal way. We seek to draw attention to the growing problem of
restricted access, inclusion, diversity, and mobility in academia due to the ‘powerlessness’ of GS
passports (see Henley & Partners, 2022). We argue that the stark imbalance of power in this area
is a serious but often overlooked structural barrier in academia, especially for those who already
1 We do not claim that the categories of GN and GS are homogenous; there is indeed a variety of discourses,
practices, institutions, and actors that constitute each category. It is as well possible that a ‘North’ exists in
every ‘South’, and a ‘South’ exists in every ‘North.’ We do not claim that the GN and the GS are completely
geographically driven either. Rather, the GN denotes a structural advantage while the GS denotes a struc-
tural disadvantage. In other words, both categories signify a complex web of cultural, historical, and political
discourses, practices, and processes that are still inuenced by (neo-)colonial representations, mechanisms,
and structures.
16 Social Psychological Review, Vol. 24 No. 2, Autumn 2022
experience disadvantages and discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, gender, class, disability,
and so on. As a small step towards dismantling the binaries and hierarchies between the GN and
GS scholars, we propose a set of recommendations that would lay the basis for more just and
horizontal relationships in academia in the future.
Academic mobility for whom? GN passports vs GS passports
As the saying goes, ‘[p]rivilege is invisible to those who have it’ (Kimmel, 2005, p.107). Passport
privilege, especially in academia, is no exception in this regard (see Albayrak-Aydemir, 2020;
Nshemereirwe, 2018). It has long ago stopped shocking many of us to learn about GS scholars
not being able to attend their conferences, pursue short-term research stays, get their awards,
or deliver their invited talks in the GN due to various visa, citizenship, and border management
issues (see Associated Press, 2017; Ravelo, 2022). It remains unclear, however, whether or to what
extent HE institutions, international associations, and GN scholars are aware of and willing to
address any of these issues.
Not being able to enjoy the privilege of global mobility that GN scholars possess makes it
difcult for GS scholars to full some academic norms, expectations, and requirements in their
professional lives. It is more challenging, for example, for GS scholars to build extensive global
networks, engage in international collaborations, and disseminate their ndings to a wider range
of audiences in international venues. Unlike GN scholars, GS scholars spend a ridiculous amount
of time compiling dozens of pages of application documents that include, but are not limited
to, cover letters, round trip reservations, proof of accommodation, travel insurance policy, bank
account statements, pay stubs, and sponsorship letters. Embassies sometimes ask the applicants
to translate and notarise these documents too. On top of that, GS scholars need to attend their
visa interviews and give their ngerprints at either consulates or outsourced visa centres such as
VFS Global and TLScontact. Only if they are lucky enough to schedule one, though. At the time
of this writing, for example, the wait time for a non-immigrant visa interview appointment at the
US Embassy in London was 120 calendar days (US Department of State, 2022). While the inter-
view process is time-consuming as it is, it puts an extra time burden on those who live far from
the urban, metropolitan centres where consulates and visa centres are often located. All of this
is costly too. Even when they are provided with the same amount of funds, GS scholars have to
use their already limited conference budgets to cover visa fees and expenses while GN scholars
have the liberty to spend their budgets in other ways – a clear example that equality does not
always translate into equity (Albayrak-Aydemir, 2020). Imagine repeating the same process from
scratch for each conference because most countries grant single entry, short-term visas that are
valid only between the days the conference is held, and the visa might not even be issued before
the conference starts, if issued at all.
Psychological and material costs of the entire process, as well as the indifference of many
institutions, associations, and people in power, prevents GS scholars from showing their true
potential and engaging in research, teaching, and citizenship activities as actively and effec-
tively as their GN peers do. This is not to suggest that GN scholars do not face any structural
challenges or are immune to the complex problems inherent in today’s neo-liberal academy.
Instead, this is to emphasise that the playing eld is not level, but rather tilted in favour of one
group against another in a highly unjust way, reinforcing the existing inequalities in academia.
Breaking down the barriers: A way forward
It is indeed notoriously difcult and time-consuming to x structural problems. However, this
should not deter us, academics, from trying to the best of our abilities. Based on our personal
experiences and our online and on-site interactions with both GN and GS scholars around the
Arda Bilgen & Özden Melis Ulu
Social Psychological Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, Autumn 2022 17
Some scholars are more equal than others: Visa barriers, passport privilege, and global academic mobility
world, we put forward the following recommendations that we believe may improve the current
status quo. The list is neither xed nor complete; it is rather a set of ideas that may eventually
lead to change or at least an increased mutual understanding. Accordingly, we propose that:
HE institutions and international associations should consider hosting their annual events
in places located elsewhere than North America and Western Europe, where the partici-
pants can travel with less difculty. ‘Visa-on-arrival’ and ‘visa-free’ countries should be
given priority over ‘fortress’ countries. This would denitely attract more scholars from the
GS, signicantly increasing not only the diversity of the academic community but also the
degree of North-South and South-South research relations.
HE institutions and international associations should adopt a more participatory and inclu-
sive approach when selecting a conference venue. Members, past attendees, and potential
attendees should be included at all stages of consultation and decision-making for a more
democratic and bottom-up selection process. Qualitative and quantitative inputs of those
who struggle to travel due to visa issues should inform these decisions.
If a conference takes place in a GN country where wait times for visa appointments and
visa processing are infamously long, conference organisers should take extra care to imme-
diately let the attendees know about the status of their submissions. This would allow the
attendees to receive their invitation letters from their associations in advance, ideally six
months before the conference, and complete their visa applications on time.
Even though it is highly frowned upon for ‘not giving a real conference feeling’ or ‘lacking
meaningful interaction,’ HE institutions and international associations should institution-
alise the new, post-pandemic hybrid conference model where the participants are provided
with the option to be part of the conference experience online or in-person. If the model is
impossible to execute due to nancial, physical, and technical reasons, then the presenters
should at least be given a chance to send an audio/video recording of their talks or pres-
entations to make themselves and their research known to others.
HE institutions and international associations should show more willingness to assume the
role of a bridge between visa applicants and relevant consulates/embassies when their staff
or members face certain problems along the process. As witnessed many times in the past,
the involvement of powerful institutions as such would play a role in shaping the direction
of decisions in a positive sense and expedite the whole process.
Finally, GN scholars might consider integrating a more reexive and introspective stance
into their daily lives and academic works. A self-inspection as such would increase
their awareness about their positionalities in general, and their privileges, biases, and
assumptions in particular, and help them reposition themselves vis-a-vis GS scholars in
a power-sensitive, non-binary, and non-hierarchical fashion (see Bilgen et al., 2021).
Our birthplaces, which we have no control over, should not necessarily determine our future.
Unfortunately, however, they largely do, especially in the space of academia. We hope that this
commentary raises awareness of an important but neglected structural barrier that concerns the
right to travel and international academic mobility. We hope that it leads more scholars to work
towards challenging the structural injustices and inequalities embedded in academia and leve-
ling the playing eld between GN and GS scholars. Therefore, we invite all scholars to provide
their support and solidarity to break down the barriers that limit global academic mobility and
academic freedom for a more diverse, equal, and inclusive academic space – for all.
18 Social Psychological Review, Vol. 24 No. 2, Autumn 2022
Dr. Arda Bilgen is a Research Ofcer at the LSE Middle East Centre. He previously worked at
the University of Warwick in the UK and Clark University in the US. He holds a PhD in Devel-
opment Studies from the University of Bonn, an MA in International Affairs/International
Security Studies from the George Washington University, and a BA in International Relations
from Bilkent University. He mainly works on water politics, transboundary water resources
management, and hydraulic infrastructure development.
Dr Özden Melis Uluğ is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. She
was previously a Visiting Assistant Professor at Clark University and a postdoctoral fellow in the
Psychology of Peace and Violence Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She holds
a PhD in Psychology from Jacobs University Bremen, Germany and an MSc in Political Psychology
from Queen’s University Belfast. Her areas of research interest include intergroup conict, inter-
group contact, collective action, and solidarity between disadvantaged communities.
Albayrak-Aydemir, N. (2020, 20 February). The hidden costs of being a scholar from the Global South. [Blog
post] LSE Higher Education Blog.
Associated Press (2017, 22 October). Yemeni journalist denied entry to US to receive press award. [Blog
post] The Seattle Times.
Bilgen, A., Nasir, A. & Schöneberg, J. (2021). Why positionalities matter: Reections on power, hierarchy, and
knowledges in ‘development’ research. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne d’études du
développement, 42(4), 519–536.
Henley & Partners (2022). The Henley passport index. Available via
Kimmel, M.S. (2005). Why men should support gender equity. Women’s Studies, 103, 102–114.
Nshemereirwe, C. (2018). Tear down visa barriers that block scholarship. Nature, 563, 7.
Ravelo, J.L. (2022, 27 July). Exclusive: IAS president ‘very upset’ over AIDS 2022 visa denials. [Blog post] Devex.
Uluğ, Ö.M. [@melisulug]. (2022). Tweets [melisulug]. Retrieved July 4, 2022, from
US Department of State (2022). Visa appointment wait times.
Arda Bilgen & Özden Melis Ulu
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