On the Frustrations of being from a “Restricted Country”
Author: Carla Ortiz
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 06/02/2008
After eight years dedicated to the Department of Academic Administration, at the University for Peace, I have experienced a lot of different emotions, frustrations, and joys next to our students that come from countries from all over the world. Many times have I become a Nigerian stranded at an International Airport in Mexico City; a Chinese with an expired Costa Rican visa at the Miami Airport; a Philippine female student deported back to Costa Rica from the USA, and even a Ugandan mother with no transit visa to allow me to go back home after a full year of hard academic work, far away from my children.
Fortunately, our students have demonstrated a strong will of power next to the efforts performed by UPEACE to solve these situations. Although we should never get used to this type of obstacles, it is kind of common to receive treatment like this while traveling through developed countries, if you are a citizen of the so called restricted countries in the language of national Immigration authorities.
As a Nicaraguan citizen, I myself have experienced security check, two consecutive times during transit through the US, before the eyes of my Costa Rican colleague, who watched surprised by the way both our nationalities, being citizens from two neighboring countries, were treated so differently under similar conditions.
These situations faced by some of our students are becoming a common practice as terrorism and immigration become a threat to developed countries. Although it is difficult to accept this reality, we learn to deal with it by identifying creative solutions, key people to contact whenever something like this arises, or end up testing your own abilities an skills to prove Immigration Officers that a visa is authentic or that a particular student or needs to transit through a certain country in order to reach a final destination with the aim to receive education for peace.
The other day, I was approached by a colleague from one of the academic departments who was struggling to obtain visa for a group of four students who came from Africa and the Caribbean, and needed to travel in a field trip to Nicaragua. Being from restricted countries, their visas had been denied.
Since we were running against time, I contacted the Nicaraguan Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately and explained the case. I was told that if a citizen from a restricted country had a Student Permit to reside in Costa Rica for a year, the Nicaraguan Consulate in Costa Rica should be able to approve the visa. This information was confirmed by the Nicaraguan Directorate General of Immigration and I happily called my colleague and told her that we should go back to the Nicaraguan Consulate and ask them reconsider our request.
Although surprised, my colleague agreed and we prepared all the documentation to go as soon as possible.
Once there, we started talking and I was briefed about the previous interview with the visa mid-rank officer. Although my colleague was very objective at the moment of describing the previous process, after our meeting with the visa Officer, I was able to understand why she was surprised when I said he should be able to change his mind with the gathered information.
Never had I felt so humiliated in my entire life! I was not expecting to have our request solved immediately, just because I am a Nicaraguan citizen, but to be honest, I expected to receive patriotic solidarity, the sort of treatment I have seen US, Canadian, and Mexican citizens receive when they approach their Consulates in Costa Rica. After all, a Consulate is a small piece of a country’s territory, in a foreign country.
We were not invited to have a seat, or shown the slightest sign of being listened to with any attention at all. In fact, the three short answers provided as feedback, ended up with a tour around the Consulate pretending to find assistance from a higher authority somewhere. After ten minutes of waiting, we were told that the visas had to be processed in Nicaragua and were dismissed.
I refused to accept this type of treatment, I usually have problems taking no for an answer without putting up a good fight, so I asked further details about the reason for not granting the visas and was told it was a disposition established by some regulations. When I asked to see the regulations, the officer responded that they were not available at the Consulate and that the document he had on his desk was confidential.
It was hard for us to understand this logic and demonstrated it with involuntary facial expressions. When he realized the mistake, he tried to fix it by saying that we should be able to obtain the regulations from the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s website. Closing several music videos and chat rooms in his computer, he tried to locate the document in the mentioned website; as he gave all types of excuses about the overall situation.
At this point, we decided to leave, so we thanked the generous man. Fortunately for us, just outside his office, we found a Guardian Angel that lent us a hand making it possible for these four students to obtain the needed visa.
I guess I could say the story had a happy ending, at least for these four students. But the idea of writing about this experience is precisely to express how uncomfortable I have felt during the past few days, savoring this bitter experience, feeling the lack of solidarity and frivolity of someone in a position to make decisions that can easily destroy plans for a better future of vulnerable people, without the minimum regret. It is a total different feeling coming from someone from your own country.
Bio: Carla Ortiz is Head of Department for Academic Adminstration at the UN University for Peace. Her tireless commitment to the thankless job of juggling visa regulations for UPEACE students is much appreciated.