You’re visiting a foreign country. You’ve decided to take a side trip to a neighboring country for a few days, but you need a visa. You drop off your passport and application at its consulate, planning to collect it the next day.
Overnight, a group of disgruntled soldiers attempts a coup. The city is locked down. As conditions deteriorate, foreign embassies and consulates lock their doors and withdraw their staff for safety.
Your passport is behind one of those locked doors. Without it, you cannot leave the country.
This sounds like a plot from a movie (2015’s No Escape is a rough fit). But it’s reality for hundreds of people right now.
The horrific civil war in Sudan has sent people fleeing from the country. The press naturally emphasizes the travails of Europeans and other foreign nationals. But many Sudanese—as well as some unlucky foreigners—are trapped in the country thanks to bad timing, bureaucracy, and missing paperwork.
The paperwork in question is a passport. Without one, people inside Sudan cannot leave by air, sea, or land.
Faris Elbadawi is a Sudanese doctor with a new job in the U.K. Just before fighting broke out in Khartoum, the capital, he had dropped his passport at the British embassy as part of his work visa application. When the conflict began, the embassy shut down and the private company responsible for processing visas withdrew its staff.
Elbadawi’s passport is now in an office in an empty building surrounded by high walls and locked gates in the middle of a city wracked by violent street combat. But without it, no country will allow him to cross its border, including Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Even if he somehow managed to make it to Port Sudan, just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, he would not be allowed on an evacuation vessel.
Hundreds of Sudanese are in similar situations. Even if they have residence rights in another country, and can produce another form of identification, they cannot leave Sudan without a passport.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but little more than a century ago passports were a rarity. People simply showed up at a foreign port or border crossing and entered another country.
Today’s world is dramatically different. Humanity is divided into a little over 200 countries and territories. You are condemned to remain in the country of your birth unless you can obtain permission to travel to another one. That is utterly impossible without a passport.
That’s one of the lesser-considered but considerable advantages of having a second passport. I know that from personal experience.
Some years ago, some American colleagues and I traveled to Cambodia for a work trip. A few days before our departure, the U.S. government-imposed sanctions on Cambodia for reasons I don’t recall.
After we traveled there on a regional flight from neighboring Vietnam, customs officials at the bottom of the departure ladder loudly announced that Americans should identify themselves. I was a U.S. citizen too, but I had traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia on my South African passport. After making knowing eye contact with my companions, I continued into the terminal.
Fortunately, my colleagues were released after six hours in a diplomatic holding area at the airport. The Cambodian government was simply making a point.
These days, I never travel anywhere without both of my passports. You just never know what’s going to happen in this crazy world, and having two travel documents doubles my chances of getting out of a tricky situation.
So, remember: a second passport isn’t just about settling down in a favorite foreign country. It could also potentially save your life.
Ted Baumann is International Living’s Chief Global Diversification Expert. He’s traveled to nearly 90 countries and is a dual citizen of the United States and South Africa. Ted has been published in international research journals, as well as in media outlets such as Barrons, Forbes, and Cheddar. Learn more about Ted Baumann here.
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