With an increasing amount of flights connecting the world and young Europeans travelling more than ever, E&M’s Nicoletta Enria explores the ethics of travelling to states that violate the human rights of their inhabitants.

About two years ago, whilst working in advocacy for minority rights, I was simultaneously planning a trip to see my boyfriend in China and then travel to the Philippines. By day I was researching and working on raising awareness of how minorities are trampled under China’s Xi Jinping and the Philippines’ Duterte regimes, by night I was avidly booking my trips to these respective countries. I felt overcome by a feeling of hypocrisy, after all working in the human rights sector means also applying these principles in your personal life – I started to question my personal convictions and integrity and whether I was abiding by my beliefs in my personal life as much as I believed. Ever since this existential crisis, this question has never quite left me and I reflect on it constantly – should we travel to states with terrible human rights records?

People are constantly travelling to China | Photo: Pexels

What’s the problem?

So, some of you may be thinking – why’s she having a meltdown over a trip to see her boyfriend? People are constantly travelling to China and the Philippines – they are like two major tourist destinations – it’s not like it’s North Korea, right? Let me break it down for you, by continuing to unproblematically travel to countries with terrible human rights records we continue to condone the state’s actions. Many states across the world, and whilst they have continued revenue from the tourist industry – they continue to show how unproblematic their actions are.

Firstly a strong tourist industry relies on strong diplomatic relationships between countries, which lets us get that shiny new visa. Then a strong tourist industry, not only helps maintain the state, but also is the perfect alibi for counties that completely deny the allegations of human rights violations. Small acts of civil resistance like boycotting visiting certain regimes can go a long way. Many artists have for years been boycotting performing in Israel, to protest its human rights record (some do not acknowledge its existence – but that’s a whole other conversation for another time). Dazed interestingly points out how the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) underlines that this is especially important for artists, as in some of these countries culture is used as a propaganda front to hide their human rights violations.

It’s almost impossible to be completely unproblematic when travelling | Photo: Pexels

Is there an ethical way to travel then?

So what can we do? This does seem to firstly cancel out a lot of countries (unfortunately the state of global human rights is reflective of the hell on earth that 2018 has felt like, if not worse) Also, it’s not like the European countries we may live in may have such a squeaky clean human rights record. For example, I’m based in the UK and in many ways I feel the current establishment’s ‘hostile environment’ migratory policy, a package of measures which aim to make life in the UK for individuals without permission to remain so unbearable that they won’t even try to enter the UK, or don’t want to stay very long, to violate many fundamental human rights. How does this abide by the UN’s Refugee Convention, a decree which encodes a state’s legal obligation to protect displaced people in international law?

It’s important to remain informed, and continue to problematise your presence in that context | Photo: Pexels

The key for me is to remain ethical in your everyday actions. You can travel ethically and sustainably by supporting the local businesses by the very communities whose human rights are violated. At the end of the day, whilst it is also important that some people boycott these countries, it’s also important to remember that these countries are built of people, some of which are the very people whose human rights are denied – and travelling there and supporting their businesses can also be a powerful weapon to support them. It’s also important that some people go to these areas, speak to people, and uncover the difficulties faced by these people.

It’s a fine line, and a balance that I’ve found very difficult to find. What’s important is to remain informed, and continue to problematise your presence in that context. For example, that you travelling to that country is not always a very equal cultural exchange as the subjects you’re interacting with may not have the same travel rights you do. Always try and support minority communities, whose rights across the world continue to be ravaged (do this also at home, not just abroad in total white saviour mode). Support minority-led businesses and activists, and call out violations where you see them. Don’t get me wrong I am not beckoning you to all rush to authoritarian countries with the mindset that you’ll save their victims by buying their products and listening to their stories. I’m saying, as a young European (especially if white), it’s almost impossible to be completely unproblematic when travelling. Just think of how problematic your travel may be, stay woke, use your privilege to stand up for whoever isn’t afforded the chance to do the same – but also explore the world and its natural wonders.

Feature image: Pexels

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    Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, but grew up in London, Rome and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London studying Language and Culture, with a focus on German and Arabic. She spent the past year working for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in Brussels and London. Now, she is studying MSc Global Europe: Culture and Conflict at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow her on twitter at @NicolettaEnria.

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