Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A passport to nowhere

A few weeks ago I received an anguished message from my friend Patrick, my co-investigator in matters religious in Bangui, as I mentioned in my last post.

Patrick works for an international humanitarian NGO that, with the exception of a horrid (but largely covered-up) sex scandal, has become one of the most steadfast of the aid groups present in northeastern CAR. The job was Patrick's first for an aid group, and thanks to the mentoring of his former boss and his own helpfully-inflated sense of pride in a job well done, he became one of the organization's most-trusted employees. He now has a dream: to work, just once, as an ex-pat. Partly, this is because he yearns to see some of the world. And partly, it is because he has noticed that expatriate employees earn exponentially more than national staff, and just one posting abroad would be enough to secure his dream of building a farm for himself and his family in the southwestern countryside.

Pride, excitement, and not a little apprehensiveness mixed in his demeanor as he told me that his bosses had nominated him to attend a workshop on gender violence in Nairobi. It would be his first trip outside the region. For my part, I was purely thrilled. As someone who has always adored going to new places, perhaps I over-value things like trips. But even if that's the case, I was happy that Patrick would get a chance to see a bit more of the world and expand the knowledge that would help him contrast his Central African experience with those of people elsewhere. Not everyone desires (or has the privilege of) this kind of anthropological perspective, but Patrick does. He put himself through college by spending evenings at the airport, where he could use the streetlights to do his homework while earning money watching travelers' cars in the open car park. Now he too would be taking off.

After a three-week work stint in the far Northeast, Patrick returned to Bangui to take care of passport formalities in advance of his trip. For the past two or three years, CAR has been in the process of switching out its old passport facilities for a new, biometric system. (Apparently, the US has pushed for these changes.) This has meant that the passport authorities have been shuttered for more than two years. The only passports obtainable during that time were those purchasable (illegally) at PK5, Bangui's big market. (The existence of such a large black market in passports is part of why people say there are more Central African diplomatic passports than regular ones.) If your passport expired during the past two years, tough luck. If you never had a passport before (like Patrick), also tough luck.

Fortunately, the new biometric facilities opened at the end of June. Unfortunately, the minister and his adjoint responsible for managing the office went en mission to Ndjamena shortly thereafter. These two lead the process of convening an audience at the presidency, and this commission decides whether the person should be granted a passport. In their absence, Patrick's completed dossier languished. His plane to Nairobi came and went. He remained in Bangui, and the passport officer remained in Ndjamena. “L'Afrique c'est le monde le plus compliqué, comprends” (“Africa is the most complicated place, you understand”), he wrote, and then refused to talk any more about it – the memory was too bitter.

Thus I found myself in the perhaps contradictory position of lamenting the injustice that one person could not go en mission and the injustice that another had gone en mission. A friend who used to work for an international organization in Bangui complained that she would continually get calls from headquarters asking her to name a Central African delegate to a global conference. (These junior staffers are judged on whether they manage to round someone up from every country.) She finally refused when the request came for a representative to the world conference on tigers in St. Petersburg last year: with no tiger within thousands of miles of CAR, why should some functionary be plucked from his office – where ostensibly he has work to do – to spend several weeks (given the paucity of planes into Bangui, any trip quickly becomes a long one) on a per diem-paid vacation like that? There is a small conference class in Bangui that trots around the world to round out attendance statistics. (One friend who is part of this select group admits that most people just show up each morning to sign the register and claim their per diem and then depart, a practice he decries) But for everyone else, even just being allowed to obtain the documents necessary to be permitted to leave the country requires a massive feat of organization and lobbying. (And let's not get started on the travails of those seeking visas to North America or Europe...) Everyone is shooting for those narrow holes – the “conference gaps” in the global immigration system. What would it take to figure out and make new openings?

From Hannah Arendt onward, much thought has been expended over the plight of the stateless, who have no one to approach for a passport; but what of the state-d who nevertheless are denied the basic rights of citizenship?

All this reminds me: time to renew my passport. I sure am lucky.

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