The latest results from the Henley Passport Index show record-breaking levels of travel freedom for top-ranking nations Japan and Singapore, but also the widest recorded global mobility gap since the index’s inception 17 years ago. Without taking evolving and temporary Covid-related restrictions into account, passport holders of the two Asian nations can now enter 192 destinations around the world visa-free – 166 more than Afghanistan, which sits at the bottom of the index.
This deepening divide in international mobility between wealthier countries and poorer ones was brought into sharp focus late last year with the arrival of the highly infectious Omicron variant, which was met with a raft of punitive restrictions against mainly African nations that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described as akin to “travel apartheid”. This, despite the fact that over the past decade and a half, overall travel freedom levels have expanded significantly.
According to historical data from the Henley Passport Index, which ranks all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa and is based on exclusive and official data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an individual could, on average, visit 57 countries in 2006 without needing to acquire a visa in advance. Today, that number has risen to 107, but this overall increase masks a growing disparity between countries in the global north and those in the global south, with nationals from countries such as Sweden and the US able to visit more than 180 destinations visa-free, while passport holders from Angola, Cameroon, and Laos are able to enter only about 50.
Germany and South Korea hold onto joìnt second spot on the latest ranking, with passport holders able to access 190 destinations visa-free, while Finland, Italy, Luxembourg, and Spain share third place, with a score of 189. The US and the UK passports have regained some of their previous strength after falling all the way to eighth place in 2020 – the lowest spot held by either country in the index’s 17-year history. Both countries now sit in sixth place, with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 186.
Dr. Christian H. Kaelin, Chairman of Henley & Partners and the inventor of the passport index concept, says opening up migration channels is essential for post-Covid recovery.
“Passports and visas are among the most important instruments impacting on social inequality worldwide as they determine opportunities for global mobility. The borders within which we happen to be born, and the documents we are entitled to hold, are no less arbitrary than our skin color. Wealthier states need to encourage positive inward migration in an effort to help redistribute and rebalance human and material resources worldwide, including improving the size and quality of their own workforces,” says Dr Kaelin.
Commenting on the Henley Global Mobility Report 2022 Q1, which was released along with the latest Henley Passport Index ranking, Prof Mehari Taddele Maru from the Migration Policy Centre points out the global south’s willingness to respond to changing circumstances is not always shared by countries in the global north.
“Expensive requirements associated with international travel institutionalize inequality and discrimination. Covid-19 and its interplay with instability and inequality has highlighted and exacerbated the shocking disparity in international mobility between wealthy developed nations and their poorer counterparts,” says Prof Maru.
According to exclusive research commissioned by the global investment migration firm Henley & Partners into the determinants of passport power, wealthier countries’ gains in travel freedom have come at the expense of poorer countries, which have experienced mounting barriers to entry in recent years. Using 17 years’ worth of data from the Henley Passport Index, political scientists Ugur Altundal and Dr Omer Zarpli compared visa-free scores with World Bank statistics on GDP and fragility, as well as with data collected by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project at the University of Gothenburg.
The study shows that while citizens of upper-middle and high-income countries have achieved visa-free access to most nations, citizens of lower-middle and low-income countries, as well as ones with higher fragility scores, enjoy far less travel freedom because they are deemed to be high-risk when it comes to security, asylum, and overstay. Interestingly, however, they found that while the world’s democracies on average have higher visa-free scores, both democratic and authoritarian regimes have increased their visa-free scores since 2006, at somewhat similar rates.
Erol Yayboke, director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, says the research clearly shows that people in poorer nations experiencing fragility – places from where escape is often the only option for survival, especially in the presence of active conflict – have the fewest pathways for regular and orderly movement.
“The analysis similarly suggests that geopolitical status is a significant factor influencing the power of the passport: Iranians and Cubans move less freely than Turks, despite having similar levels of overall fragility. Finally, the well-documented global democratic decline seems to have had little impact on the ability of newly non-democratic countries’ citizens to move – democratic and non-democratic countries alike have, on the whole, seen increased access to visa-free travel,” says Yayboke.
“While not necessarily surprising, the research reinforces the harsh realities of global mobility today: if you are fortunate enough to have a passport from a rich and stable country — regardless of form of government — you can move relatively easily across international borders. If not, the difficulties of poverty and conflict forcing you to leave home are just the beginning of a tough journey abroad… if you can even leave in the first place.”
Further travel freedom uncertainty predicted for 2022
Remarking in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2022 Q1 on the Covid-19’s effect on wider geopolitical trends in migration and mobility, Misha Glenny, award-winning investigative journalist, author and broadcaster and an associate professor at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, says “the very presence of Omicron points to a major geopolitical failure. Had the US, Britain, and the EU diverted more money and vaccines to southern Africa, the chances of such a robust new strain emerging would have been much lower. Until we share the distribution of vaccines more equitably, new mutations will have the ability to send us all back to square one.”
Dr Andreas Brauchlin, internationally renowned cardiology and internal medicine specialist and member of the SIP Medical Family Office Advisory Board in Switzerland, agrees, stating an individual’s health and vaccination status are as influential on mobility as their passport’s visa-free access.
“An individual’s nationality and residence status continue to dictate access to nationally approved vaccines, while the lack of a globally recognized vaccine passport restricts mobility. Being a resident in the ‘wrong’ nation might heavily impact access to business, health, and medical services, and make it impossible for some to travel,” says Dr Brauchlin.
Nick Careen, IATA’s Senior Vice President for Operations, Safety and Security, says much of the progress made over the past two decades to put passengers in control of their journeys through self-service processes has been undone due to Covid-related restrictions.
“Before traffic ramps up again, we have a window of opportunity to deliver long-term efficiency improvements for passengers, airlines, airports, and governments. Our recent survey found that 73% of passengers are willing to share their biometric data to improve airport processes (up from 46% in 2019), and 88% will share immigration information prior to departure for expedited processing,” he says.
Multiple citizenships embraced amidst geopolitical shifts
Against this bleak backdrop, experts commentating in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2022 Q1 observe that there is also cause for some optimism. As was the case in 2021, there have been relatively few high-profile visa agreements between countries over the past year, but the rankings have nevertheless seen a few notable upward shifts.
The UAE continues its remarkable upward trajectory on the Henley Passport Index, having recently reinstated in practical terms its landmark US-brokered agreement with Israel, suspended throughout most of Covid-19. It now sits at 15th place on the ranking, the highest spot yet achieved for the Arab nation throughout the index’s history, with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 175. Ukraine and Georgia have also made significant progress, both having moved up 25 spots in the rankings over the past 10 years, making them the highest climbers in the CIS region.
Ryhor Nizhnikau, Senior Research Fellow at the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia program at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, notes that recent amendments to Ukraine’s citizenship laws will now make it possible for Ukrainians living abroad to hold more than one passport — a further example of how allowing dual citizenship is becoming the norm.
“To make the bill work, Ukrainian lawmakers need to resolve a conundrum of combining national security concerns and the interests of Ukrainian holders of Russian passports, specifically in Donbass and the Crimea, who were forced to take the Russian passports. Its resolution will open pathways for further legislative improvements,” says Nizhnikau.
Prof Peter J Spiro, a leading expert on dual citizenship who holds the Charles Weiner Chair in international law at Temple University in the US, says there is a wider global move to embrace multiple citizenships even as Covid-19 has curtailed movement.
“As Covid spread, states locked down their borders. But almost all of them continued to allow entry by citizens (and in many cases permanent residents as well). So, dual citizenship now has value even to those holding premium passports. It’s emerged as a kind of insurance that has value regardless of one’s primary nationality. In the pandemic context, it also acted as a health insurance. The more citizenships one holds, the more diversified one’s insurance will be,” he says.
Domicile diversification mitigates risk in Covid era
As in past years, countries that offer residence and citizenship by investment programs continue to perform strongly on the Henley Passport Index, with Dominica’s recent visa waiver agreement with China seen by experts as a prime example of that success. Looking at wider trends in the industry, the chaos of Covid-19 has emphasized the appeal of investment migration programs for the states that are able to offer them, as well as for international investors.
Dr Juerg Steffen, CEO of Henley & Partners, says the benefits of being able to choose one’s domicile are now self-evident.
“Many investment migration programs include the option to invest in real estate in return for residence or citizenship. Investors acquire a sizeable asset with the potential to increase in value as well as the ability to live in a new country and move around more freely — something that can be extremely valuable in times of turbulence. During the current economic crìsis, countries with established programs have benefited from the alternative revenue stream. Clearly, governments that adjust their policies to allow foreign investors to settle with ease will win the competitive race for both revenue and talent in 2022,” notes Dr Steffen.