The 21st of January 2016 saw the United States implementing the Visa Waiver Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, which brought a number of changes to the visa application process for some citizens of the European Union.The question begs, has terror become so entrenched in people’s minds that they are beginning to look for mental, legal and physical fortifications against the threats that they face? Or were the changes the natural reaction of a freedom-loving nation during exceptionally difficult times?
Were the changes justified?
Coming off the back of the November 2015 Paris attacks and amid a general state of unease across the United States about the possibility of attacks, the new rules are, in a way, quite understandable. Reports that up to 6,000 people, mostly from France, Britain and Germany, have, so far, travelled to the Middle East to fight on behalf of the jihadists are certainly alarming.
Perhaps disenchanted by the bleak desert heat, most of these soon find their way back home. Some reports have put the number of jihadists, who are now present in Europe after making their way back from terror training camps, at 5,000. From this context, the decision by US lawmakers to make it mandatory for people who hold dual EU and Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian or Sudanese citizenship, to apply for a visa before travelling to the United States does not appear that kneejerk, after all. Not when there has been so much bloodshed in France, one of the nations that hold the unwanted distinction of having contributed the most to the swelling of the jihadists’ ranks.
Following the changes that were made to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), anyone from a participating country who has been to one or more of the censored countries within the past five years is now also required to apply for a visa before travelling to the United States. Again, this appears, at first sight, to be something of an overreaction. However, there is still the fact that many European citizens have fallen prey to the message of the terrorists and, in the name of one thing or other, have found it necessary to travel to the war-torn countries in the Middle East. After all, what rational reason could someone who is not a journalist or a humanitarian worker have for travelling to Syria or Iraq?
What has changed following the implementation of the new visa regime?
The new requirements affect citizens in 23 of the European Union’s 28 member countries, who, before the changes, had been allowed to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without having to apply for Visas. The requirements were, to obtain clearance through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), an automated system which is used to assess an individual’s eligibility to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
It would appear as if, faced with the ever present threat of terror, the United States has decided to erect as many safeguards as possible on the path of the would-be jihadist. ESTA on its own was, perhaps, deemed to be not enough, due to its rather impersonal nature. After all, it is quite easy for any half-competent individual to cheat a computer program.
How does the new visa program work?
Following the changes that were made to the Visa Waiver Program, people who fall within the affected segment are now required to apply for a visa at the US embassy or consulate in their country of residence.
The process involves both an online application and an in-person interview for which a booking has to be made in advance. This is the usual way through which citizens of non-waiver countries travel to the United States. At present, the visa application process costs $160.
It appears as if there was hope among the US lawmakers who passed the contentious piece of legislation, that holding physical interviews would be one way of ensuring that potential attackers are weeded out. The system is designed to make it as difficult as is possible for people who harbour nefarious agendas to step onto United States soil.
Are there waivers to the new rules?
Fortunately, waivers exist for bona fide travellers who urgently need to get to the United States. Where it is deemed to be in the country’s interests, the Secretary of Homeland Security may, on a case by case basis, set aside the restrictions.
Those for whom the waiver may be applicable include people who work for humanitarian organisations and may have travelled to the affected countries as part of their work. People who travelled to the countries in question for genuine, business related activities may also be exempted from having to apply for a visa at their nearest consulate.
Do the new requirements affect US citizens?
Holders of a United States passport who have travelled to the affected countries or are dual nationals of those countries are not required to get a visa under the Visa Waiver Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act.
The answer is never easy
And to the question on whether or not the United States was justified in introducing changes to the Visa Waiver Program that made it mandatory for people from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan, and for any European who has travelled to these countries within the past five years, to get a visa at a nearby consulate before purchasing a plane ticket?
There is no doubt that the threat of terror is real and the number of would be jihadists who have been moving between Europe and the war-ravaged Middle East is rather alarming. However, as to whether or not fortifications could ever solve the problem that defines the 21st Century, that remains to be seen. After all, terror is, besides being about the physical implications of being attacked, also a state of mind, and the moment that one lets its take root is the moment when it becomes real.