Minding the Mobility Gap

Annie Erling Gofus - Nov 16 2021
Published in: Global Workforce
| Updated Apr 27 2023
The power of a country’s passport rises and falls and serves as a reliable barometer of its citizens global opportunity.

The global obstacles to travel that rose to slow the pandemic in 2020 are gradually coming down in many parts of the world as countries look to restore economies and encourage travel and trade. But even as borders increasingly open, some countries are still enforcing some of the strictest inbound Covid-19-related travel restrictions and a gap that pre-dated the pandemic appears to have grown more stark. 

The widening global mobility gap can be seen geographically, as many countries in the global south have relaxed borders while countries in the global north have been slower to reduce border controls. Disparities in individual wealth also deepen the international mobility divide. The wealthy can afford to buy additional citizenships, which can sometimes be purchased along with property purchases or investments in a country's economy. For example, the United Kingdom's Tier 1 Investor Visa costs approximately $2.6 million and allows for temporary residency, eventually leading to British citizenship.

Political instability, economic volatility, and the impact of climate change has fueled vast numbers of people seeking to migrate in search of a better quality of life. Second homes and alternative citizenships have become essential for international entrepreneurs and investors looking to reduce risk exposure. Still, others have the resources and status to continue crossing borders for work, family, or tourism. For those who don't already live in wealthy nations or can't afford new citizenship there are diminishing opportunities to improve their immediate condition or build intergenerational wealth.

The Henley Passport Index's recent findings highlight the economic power of a passport. From the right country, the passport opens more doors and creates more opportunity.

The Henley Passport Index measures the power of global passports

The latest research from the Henley Passport Index shows how barriers to travel since the pandemic started have resulted in the broadest global mobility gap in the index's 16-year history. The index ranks all of the world's passports based on data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which shows the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa. As pandemic-related restrictions become entrenched and amplify the already significant global mobility divide between advanced and developing economies, the gap will likely increase.

According to the Henley Passport Index, Japan and Singapore have the most powerful passports and can travel visa-free to 192 countries. Coming in second are South Korea and Germany at 190 visa-free countries, while Finland, Italy, Luxembourg, and Spain are all tied for third place with a score of 189. New Zealand, which recently announced a vaccination certificate system, ranks sixth with 186 free-to-enter nations.

As recently as 2014, the United States and the United Kingdom held the world's most powerful passports. Today they are tied for seventh place with a total of 185 destinations, sharing that rank with the Czech Republic, Greece, Malta, and Norway.

At the other end of the Henley Passport Index is Egypt, which has the world's 97th most powerful passport. Egypt currently has no travel restrictions in place, but Egyptian citizens can only enter 51 other countries around the globe without acquiring a visa.

At the bottom of the index is North Korea with 39 destinations, Nepal and the Palestinian territories with 37, Somalia with 34, Yemen with 33, Pakistan with 31, Syria with 29, Iraq and Afghanistan with 28. Even fully vaccinated travelers from countries at the lower end of the Henley Passport Index remain locked out of most of the developed world.

The global mobility gap threatens to slow economic recovery

Some view Covid-19-related travel restrictions as new tools employed by the global north to curb mobility from the global south. Professor Mehari Taddele Maru from the United Nations University Institute recently commented in Henley & Partners' Global Mobility Report, "the global north has been enforcing aggressive migration containment strategies for some time now through the rigid application of border controls, undermining the movement of persons in various ways."

Although some countries like the UK and the US have recently adjusted their Covid-related travel ban policies, little else has been done to curb growing inequalities regarding travel freedom and access. Many countries in the global north still refuse to recognize vaccines administered across Africa, South America, and South Asia. While the US has reopened to fully vaccinated travelers, the UK still excludes fully vaccinated travelers from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, India, and South Africa.

More than a year into the pandemic, it is still unclear what role border closures and travel restrictions play in a pandemic management response. Countries that have successfully used border closures to prevent viral spread have used them alongside comprehensive domestic measures, so it's difficult to measure their effectiveness. Global mobility experts warn that the global economy cannot restart without the free movement of people worldwide.