Expatriate or Immigrant ?

The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.

girl and paf

The answer to this question depends on the direction of the airplane that carries people around the world.
If  the airplane leaves New York or Paris and arrives in Accra, the disembarking passengers are called Expats, but arriving back in New York or Paris the passengers disembarking there are called Immigrants.

At one of the Infrastructure conferences organized by the Corporate Council on Africa  I asked the same question to the audience. Afterwards I was approached by a representative of the US State Department who explained that the US legislation has different terminology to describe movements of people.
Although the statement in itself most likely was correct, my point was not to find out the morphology nor the meaning of the words but to expose the spirit in which these different words are used when dealing with people.

Because of the nature of my work I travel frequently across continents and I have witnessed many instances where I felt that immigration officers practiced borderline behavior “welcoming” passengers, not adding any kind of security value to the process.

Up until recently Air France flights arrived for instance in Douala  accompanied by officers of the PAF (Police Nationale PAF), the police unit that deals with immigration at the French airports. Their task was to check passengers at the door of the airplane on Cameroon soil just before boarding the flight.
Passengers had already gone through all the local formalities and controls of the Airport of Douala.
Upon arrival at the airport in Paris at the gate of the plane, another team of the PAF unit, once  were shouting the word “Passeports” to the disembarking passengers, before allowing the passengers to join the queues at the immigration booths where , like every other passenger arriving in Paris, people’s passports were checked.

I asked a lady PAF officer why she was shouting at us, since in my opinion this did not add any value to the procedure other than creating a hostile setting between the officer and the passenger and I wanted to know if this was the first impression that she wanted to leave the passengers with. Instead of receiving an answer her superior officer took my passport and after examining he pointed out to me that my passport was in a bad shape. I acknowledged and suggested to the officer that he should complain to my government while I had taken notice of his badge number and name. I would gladly report the incident to his government officials likewise. Based on this the officer asked me to proceed and started to check the next passenger.

The incident worried me because I felt that if this was the way I, as a European,  had been addressed,  I could only imagine how my African fellow passengers were going to be treated.

All in all  passengers arriving from Douala were therefore checked four times ( once by the local authorities in Douala and three times by officers of the PAF) as opposed to passengers arriving from New York who’s passports were not checked leaving the US and were only checked at the Paris immigration booths for the first time since they left home.

Some of the flights from Africa to Europe take about 5 to 6 hours. Not long enough to sleep while too long to feel as if nothing happened. On top arriving in winter time in Europe at 6 am in the morning at around freezing point coming from tropical zones is a challenge in itself to put a smile on your tired face on arrival.  An incident like described can therefore result in a lot of needless frustration.

What this behavior and procedure illustrates is contempt for anybody arriving from Africa to France in this case and an expression of doubt about the intentions of the passengers arriving into the country. Similar incidents happen around Europe and the rest of the world.

Most countries in Europe apply the rule that someone is not guilty until proven guilty. This rule seem to be forgotten at times when passengers arrive at the airports of some of the European destinations. Not every passenger arrives planning to stay illegal in the country.
Given the old ties that Europe has with some of the African countries it is to be expected that people like to visit their relatives or come and do business with their European partners.

Many people arriving in Europe feel embarrassed or at times even humiliated by the way they are received after a long journey.

finger print reader iris scan handpalm

From a security point of view I don’t understand that in this day and age our identity documents are still not including biometric information.
Some airports like Amsterdam and Dubai use biometric data at their e-gates but only with those passengers that have subscribed to the service.
It would speed up immigration procedures at a fraction of the costs and eliminate all the emotion and frustration that passengers have to go through if biometric data could become a standard part of our travel documents.
To include visa requirements in this procedure,  barcodes or similar easy to incorporate tools can be used and checked before boarding a plane using barcode readers. The technology is there to provide an effective and practical solution.

To agree on standards across nations and deal with privacy legislation are probably the biggest challenges but if these can be overcome the rest is just a matter of volume and implementation.

Immigration staff find it difficult at times to compare pictures with faces if the person is from a different racial origin than he is himself. With biometric tools any doubt is eliminated and any fraud immediately exposed.


On a flight to Washington DC,  I ended up sitting next to Mrs. Christine Lagarde, who at the time was still Minister of Trade of the French Government. I shared my concerns regarding the immigration practices since many of my African colleagues have to travel to Europe and or the US to get trained.  Even with our companies supporting documents they struggle sometimes to get visas and if they do they may face an unfriendly welcome nevertheless.

Mrs Lagarde felt that it was important to ensure proper training for the immigration staff so that borderline behavior could be reduced to the minimum. I felt this was an encouraging statement and I hope that training is being provided adequately and other countries will follow this example so that all world citizens can travel and won’t have to worry if they will be received with respect and dignity upon arrival at their foreign destinations.

French tax payers may wonder why one PAF team had to check another PAF team before the final check at the Airport immigration booths if a decision was made to fly the PAF officers up and down to African states and maybe ask Mrs Lagarde, who now owns the French Budget the question when the government will implement biometric data in their identification documents if immigrants are of such a concern.   The French Embassies could start providing visas that include data that can be processed electronically and limit the risk of fraud.

Not only will this cut costs but it will improve security. It may set an example for other countries around the world to follow. The passenger will no longer be subject to humiliating behavior of some of the immigration officers.

© Desi Lopez Fafié

4 Responses to “Expatriate or Immigrant ?”

  1. 1 solomon baba
    May 23, 2009 at 11:12 am

    I quite agree with you Desi, I have also been at the receiving end of these endless torture and frustrations, where the embassy see’s every African applying for VISA for what ever purpose as a fugitives.

    They dont care about one’s economic status at country of residence or nationality any more, they just look for any opportunity to deny you VISA, could just be the simple fact that you a single male, be you a consultant in a multi-national company or whatever high flying job, you will simply be denied, all the embassy does this days before even going through your documents regarding your purpose for travel, they will ask if you are married or have kids, and if your answer is NO, the expected response from the embassies are usually: “We are sorry, we cannot give you VISA at this moment”, no reason given, but of course it is obvious.

    If opportunity is not given to Africans to travel to Europe or America in my case for self development. How then are we supposed to learn from the developed countries Europe or America in other to help contribute to the development African, Nigeria in particular. Because I dont want to believe that Europe, America and the rest of the developed countries are not interested in our development.

    I hope and pray this will change SOON.

  2. 2 culicious
    May 23, 2009 at 12:40 pm


    Very well said.
    I have experienced this kind of behavior as well. All over the world I am afraid.
    It looks like the old age saying ”I dont like what I dont know” which most of times is a sign of being scared for new things and people.
    A smile, a friendly word will help make the world a better place.
    Take care and keep writing

    Kees Vogelesang

  3. May 23, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Great article as it brings some experiences into mind. And to start with, these kinds of frustrations in Africa begin from the embassies (visa acquisition) then ends at the destination airport, that’s if granted the visa at all.

    As a recent university graduate (3yrs ago) who studied commerce, with accounting as a major, I was asked by the US visa consular to differentiate between C++ and Java programming languages before been granted a visa. Mean while, the major reason for the trip was to present on the topic “the need for technology in education for African students” at a conference in California. “No idea” was my answer and that led to refusal on the first shot but eventually got the visa through appeal with help from some friends.

    First time travellers mostly are nervous, let alone been discriminated by the colour of their skin, accent, dress code, and above all their nationality. Biometric technology for e-gates worldwide would be a great break through from these frustrations at airports but I wonder how many nations will feel comfortable incorporating it.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. 4 Peter Heydenrych
    June 14, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Agree. I find it laughable that European immigration officials at airports assume that because we’re African we’re all desperate to gain entry to to Europe. Desperate to live in an over-regulated, opportunity-barren, self-obsessed Europe? As they say in American “Na-aah”.

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