Facing invisible borders, every year thousands of people from developing countries apply for a visa to western countries and face an often tedious visa application process. They worry about whether they have the right documents or whether a typo might put their application directly into the reject pile and anxiously await a response. At best, successfully getting a visa is a completely mystifying process. At worst, after doing all the hard work, their visa gets denied.
Are the strict regulations governing access to the consulate and the complicated application process strategically designed to induce fear? If so, why?
The Borders of Fear Meetup: Facing Invisible Borders was organized by the Disruption Network Lab and held on October 28, 2020 from 19:00-22:00 at ACUD Macht Neu in Berlin’s Mitte district. It was hosted by Thomas C. Kalunge of the #MigrantMediaNetwork. Thomas sought to answer questions related to the journey of a potential migrant to Germany using design thinking.
Migrantmedianetwork provides young Africans with reliable information and training on migration issues and social media, in order to help others make informed decisions and be aware of safer migration options to Europe.
The German & European community was of particular focus in this #MMN meetup, with 13 Germans and other European citizens of the German community taking part in the event that welcomed 25 participants overall. Thomas began the evening by presenting on how a design thinking methodology could help us gain a deeper knowledge of the situation. He then took participants on a hypothetical journey that detailed the steps an individual coming from a developing country would have to take in order to apply for a visa to come to Germany as a migrant. In walking participants through this visa application process, he was able to make the invisible border visible, showing all of the hurdles that exist along the way.
As of July 2020, the German passport was ranked as the 3rd strongest passport in the world: German passport holders can travel to about 189 countries without a visa. The problems surrounding visa applications was therefore new to Germans, or citizens of the European Union, and highlighted the inequity faced by others whose citizenship does not bestow upon them these privileges.
The evening event was designed to be experiential in nature and covered the following topics:
Role Play: Visa Application Process
All participants were briefed and asked to arrange their documents in order and proceed to the gate for security control before they proceeded to the consulate.
Consulate setup: There were three consulates onsite ready to process the visa application forms of the participants. The participants went through two security checks: all required documents were checked, and electronic gadgets were left at the gate by the security checkpoint.
5 out of 20 participants were granted a visa, leaving 15 participants without visa. Participants were rejected based on the following criteria:
- Failure to answer odd questions
- Failure to submit required documents
- No reason given
Through role playing participants were able to in a small way experience the nature of the visa application process in developing countries.
After this, the group discussed and sought answers and solutions to these questions:
- What are the challenges that potential migrants face in the migration process, especially for those from developing countries?
- Why do some of the migrants choose to not even try to apply for a visa and instead take the irregular (backdoor) path, even in cases where the backdoor path costs more money than the regular path?
- Are the strict regulations governing access the consulate and the complicated application process strategically designed to induce fear? If so, why?
Discussing policy and public dialogue
In the past, the German government has called for public dialogue and suggestions for how to make the visa application process more humane. Yet at the same time, more border security was put in place and they have begun to strategically grant fewer visa. This led to demonstrations in front of embassies in developing countries and drastically increased irregular (backdoor) migration.
Based on this information and the role play, participants where divided into three groups to brainstorm and discuss these questions:
- Have you applied for visa before?
- How was your application?
- What made it difficult or easy for you?
- How did this process make you feel?
- Do you see any fault in the process?
- How can this process be made more effective?
- What could be changed about the process?
The workshop was designed to foster discussion and allow participants to gain a better understanding of the hurdles that stand in the way of applying for a visa and using the prescribed path to migration. These goals were met. Participants came up with ideas and solutions they were ready and willing to share with the German government in the context of the public dialogue surrounding migration and the visa application process.
Ideas garnered from the discussions:
- Provide clear information on the official websites
- Websites need to be functional and user-friendly
- There should be offline info-centers
- Provide clear information on the reason for a rejection
- More funding to have sufficient & well-trained staff
- Greater transparency of the process
- Decentralized Consulates / Agencies for more accessibility
- Ban discriminating & intimidating behavior on the part of agency or staff
Another group argued that the process should be free and would be more fair if the following were implemented:
- Personnel should be well-informed / educated in order to provide accurate answers
- The process should be anonymous
- Provide a clear checklist of requirements/ documents (available online and offline at the consulate)
- Forbid questions related to socio-economic status
- Provide visa assistance through simple language forms and someone who does a pre-check for accuracy and typos
- Examining the root causes of problems more extensively
- Stop media fear mongering
- Digitalize the visa process (automation could decrease risk of prejudice / racism in interviews)
- Reduce “ultra security” in application centers.
Written by Benedictus Agbelom