A family of three—a mother, a father and a young child, temporarily living in Bangkok, Thailand for a few months in 2021 had to dejectedly return home to Yangon in early 2022 because their visa applications to the United States were rejected with no reasons given. This was, however, not a singular event. Two separate students applying for an education visa to Singapore were rejected in April and May of 2022, based on the sole reason that they are Myanmar passport holders. These two countries are not the only ones who have responded this way towards Myanmar citizens.
On March 28, 2022, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) moved Myanmar into a “red” group (UDI 2012-008) of visa assessment; meaning applications from Myanmar will only be granted in extraordinary situations. According to the UDI website, the red group included countries of which visa applications are carefully assessed based on the applicant’s likelihood of returning due to the home country’s financial, social and/or political conditions. Basically, it is saying that whatever the applicants’ social standings and financial backgrounds are, the UDI will be assessing the applicants based on the home country’s situations.
One social organization, with offices in Norway and Myanmar, was one of the victims of Norwegian immigration rules’ change. The Operation Manager of the organization, who requested anonymity, explained that the company was approved for funding in 2020 by the Norwegian governmental body which finances two-way mutual personnel exchange between companies and organizations in Norway and similar companies and organizations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The purpose of the program is to exchange staff between Norway and Myanmar for three years. The program was initially postponed by COVID and continued to be delayed by the 2021 military coup in Myanmar.
With the contract reaching its final year in 2022 and still no personnel being exchanged between two countries, the Operation Manager said everyone involved began to be frustrated with the UDI because it was starting to be obvious that visa applications from Myanmar were deliberately delayed. After some time, the organization was finally informed that no visa, visit or long term, will be permitted for Myanmar visa applicants in the foreseeable future due to the UDI moving Myanmar into the “red” visa group. [*The information on which group Myanmar was in before March 28, 2022, was unable to be retrieved.]
“It was very disappointing and frustrating that Myanmar was moved into “red” visa group purely for the political instability caused by the military regime. It is crazy that the people of Myanmar are being punished instead of having support by foreign countries,” the Operation Manager said.
He added that being in the “red” group meant that it wouldn’t matter how well-educated you are or how much money you have, or who you are or even what purpose you’re traveling to Norway for, the general rule is that unless you’re traveling for a special occasion, the visa will be denied.
“Proud to be Myanmar”
One student who applied for school in Singapore wrote on her Facebook page that the reason for her visa rejection was because she’s Myanmar. She wrote sarcastically, “I am very happy to be Myanmar. My visa was rejected because I am Burmese. Very proud to be Burmese.” According to her previous posts, it showed that she applied for a program in Kaplan Higher Education Academy. Another student who recently got his education visa rejected to Singapore had also been accepted into a few universities in Singapore, which he was set to resume his second years of college after attending virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic period. He wasn’t given any reasons for his rejection, so he said he will be submitting an appeal. [*The identity of the students is withheld for their safety.]
The struggles that the youths in Myanmar faced with visa applications to foreign countries have been well-documented since last year. A report by Aljazeera on November 3, 2021, said many Myanmar students traveled to the South Caucasus or the Middle East to apply for education visas with embassies in Myanmar suspending its services after the coup and the entry into neighboring Thailand were still barred due to COVID-19. The article interviewed students and travel agents who said that some of Myanmar students’ visa applications were rejected due to the applicants having difficulty to prove they would return to Myanmar as professional prospects dim after the military coup.
The article also documented that student visa applications have doubled in 2021 to western countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For Canada, there were 210 applications between January and August 2021 compared to 92 during the same months in 2020. According to publicly available data for the US, there were 652 applications approved between February and July 2021, compared to 64 in 2020.
Myanmar Passport: Weaker than Weak?
According to the Passport Index, Myanmar Passport can only reach 27 percent of the world. Before the double header of COVID and the coup, Myanmar passport holders could travel to 15 countries without a visa and 39 countries with a visa on arrival. During 2020, the number dropped to 7 visa free travel and 33 visa on arrival, and after the coup in 2021, only 6 countries allow visa free travel and 37 countries with visa on arrival. In 2022 with lenient quarantine restrictions, 12 countries allow visa free travel and 41 countries with visa on arrival.
For countries which Myanmar nationals need to apply visa, there wasn’t much difference between 2019 and today, but comparing between 2019 and the year of the coup, 2021, only 144 countries required visas in 2019, but the figure rose to 155 countries in 2021.
The Future for Myanmar Passport Holder
Many western embassies in Myanmar have gradually reopened their visa services for both short-stay and long-stay visas in late May 2022. The German Visa Application Center, run by the embassy’s external service provider, VFS Global, has resumed short-term (up to 90 days) Schengen visas starting from May 25. The U.S. Embassy also announced that appointment slots for student visas will be processed starting from June 2, with social visit visas rumored to reopen in coming September.
Compared to 2021, there are more opportunities for those looking to relocate or pursue their education in other countries. But a recent Schengen visa applicant who submitted an application on May 25 said, “Things are definitely more complicated, and more resources are required to apply even a short-stay visa to western countries. I have to show double the amount in the bank account than before and have to prove more than before that I am not throwing my passport away and settle in their countries”.
In this climate, the restrictions against Myanmar passport holder can’t even help the rich, famous, and privileged to fast-track the visa application processes if they want to travel to the first world countries.