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When Your Passport isn't Worth Much

Swiss and Peruvian Passport
This last week the media and social media has been full of comments on Trumps #MuslimBan. The new immigration policies of the US has made me aware once again that our world is still a very unequal place. People are treated in a certain way simply because they were born in one place and not in another. Depending on the passport(s) you hold you are granted certain travel privileges - or not.

I was born and raised in Switzerland and have enjoyed the benefits of free travel from an early age. It is normal for me to travel without needing a visa and strange for the few exceptions where I do need one. A short trip to Germany, a holiday in Canada or an extended trip in New Zealand - all is possible without much paperwork! Today, I can travel to 155 countries by just carrying a valid Swiss passport!

I never personally experienced the disadvantages of owning a passport that isn't worth much - until I got married to a person who owns one.

My husband is Peruvian. We met in Lima while I was traveling through South America on an open ended trip. He was my climbing instructor at a local climbing gym. When we started dating and even when we decided to get married, I didn't think too much about the fact that he is from a developing and thus less-privileged country. Living in Peru, I didn't experience much troubles for being a foreigner so my different nationality was never much of an issue. However, one day something happened that made me acutely aware of the differences between our travel privileges.

Applying for a Swiss Visa

I got pregnant! We were thrilled! In fact, we were so happy we wanted to share the experience with my family in Switzerland. However, before we could plan our trip we needed one very important thing: a visa to Switzerland for my husband!* "Easy enough!", I thought and helped my husband getting the necessary documentation and an interview at the Swiss embassy. 

At that time my husband was working full time as an instructor for a local climbing gym and part time as an outdoor coach for one of the best schools in Lima. He didn't earn a lot but he had a steady income. We weren't married yet but thought that my pregnancy was proof enough that we were a real couple**. Little did we know! 

We were punctual for his interview but were soon turned back by the Peruvian secretary of the embassy because some documents were missing or incomplete. After the initial frustration we got ourselves together, completed what was missing and asked for a new interview. After all, it really was our fault for not providing the required documents.

The second time my husband went alone to the visa interview. It was made clear to us that my presence wasn't required or even allowed during the interview process, so I decided not to waste time waiting around at the embassy. In hindsight, it might have been beneficial to show my pregnant self at the interview just to emphasize my support for my husband. But hindsight is always 10/10, no?!

Can you guess? The interview didn't go well! The interviewer was a Peruvian employee of the Swiss embassy and he did not like my husband much. After the usual questions about the purpose of the trip, the expected questions about our relationship started. "How did you meet?" and such. My husband told me he tried to answer as truthfully as possible. But there is no good answer a question like "Isn't it morally wrong for a teacher to date a student?" or "You got pregnant quite quickly. Why?"

When my husband returned from the interview he was ambivalent. He got the sensation that the interviewer didn't like him from the very beginning. He thought maybe his looks - he has long hair and is very dark skinned from his outdoor work - worked against him since racial discrimination even amongst Peruvians is very common. He was also surprised that he wasn't asked about his work or his general plans for the future. However, he still hoped that whoever reviewed his documents would realize that the purpose of his trip to Switzerland truly was to meet his future in-laws and the grandparents of his future child.

It didn't work out! The visa request was denied. We were angry and disappointed. Why? Who decided my husband wasn't worthy of visiting Switzerland? We didn't understand the reasons. The only explication we received (and not in a straightforward way) was that someone thought we were planning to stay in Switzerland for the birth of our child and until later. 

I was upset. No one asked my husband or myself about our plans for the future. No one asked where we wanted our child to be born. It was assumed without consulting us. My husband told me: "Do you believe me now? They are all the same! They all discriminate against us Peruvians!" and I remember I thought it couldn't be. It couldn't be possible that my own country Switzerland wouldn't allow my own husband to visit for some arbitrary reasons. 

And then it hit me. This is what thousands of people all around the globe must be experiencing every day. How frustrating! How infuriating! How unfair! In the end, I had to travel alone and my family wasn't able to meet my husband until after our son was born.

Thankfully, the story didn't end there for us. We decided to appeal the decision in Switzerland and after some paperwork and a three month wait, my husband was notified that the decision of the embassy had been reversed and that he was allowed to travel to Switzerland now. However, by then I was in my final days of pregnancy and we had to postpone our trip to the next year. The following year my husband was granted a visa to Switzerland and we very much enjoyed the trip - well aware that things could have gone wrong again.

* This was in 2014 when Peruvian citizens still needed visas to travel to Europe's Schengen zone. Since January 2016 Peruvians no longer need a travel visa. They can travel freely to the Schengen area with a valid biometric passport, proof of travel insurance and a travel itinerary / letter of invitation.

** I'm aware that there are people who are trying to get visas based on fake relationships and fake marriages. I imagine it can sometimes be hard for embassy employees to distinguish between real and fake relationships. Faking any document or situation is a legitimate reason for visa denial.



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