Passports Without Borders: Pondering The Prospects In An Uncertain World

As long as politics presides over passports, there is little hope for pragmatism

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A version of this article first appeared in the Feb/18 issue of The Capital magazine.

In a highly connected world where Sophia The Robot is already touring the world with a Saudi Arabian passport, it is hard to understand why so many real Sophias struggle to enjoy such enviable ease of travel.

This contrast becomes disconcerting especially when many are routinely stopped and checked at the border or refused entry, while others languish in long visa queues fenced off by the “red tape”. Considering the age-old architecture of nation-state bureaucracies and power politics, it’s a pity that travel remains a domain that has surprisingly missed the bus for true globalisation. So how do we explain this travel tragedy?

Over the years, the passport has become more than just an indispensable instrument for the overseas traveler. In the context of global politics, it is an assertion of national sovereignty and statehood, signifying the legality of the bond between the citizen and the nation-state, wherever in the world they might be. The passport symbolises a home to return to, even if the holder is not sentimentally attached or patriotically committed to the state in question. And so, for over a century, the national passport has retained its status as a formal document of undeniable importance, even more so in an era of increased mobility and shifting identities.

The Visa Burden

Taking a look at the current discourse over travel freedom, it is no doubt that the subject of visa issuance figures prominently. Granted, visas exist to uphold border integrity, curb illegal migration and reciprocate diplomatic relations. However, for most travelers hailing from the developing world, the visa regime is their worst nightmare. Visa application procedures are often unreasonably long-winded, tedious and expensive. In extreme cases, nationals of certain developing countries are forced to fly out to a third country, that hosts the nearest diplomatic mission of the destination country, to provide the necessary biometrics required for their visas. Citizens of the Maldives, for example, have no option but to arrange a separate trip to neighbouring Sri Lanka to obtain a visa to visit an EU/Schengen state for the first time, even if their intended duration of stay is less than a week.

Visas | Passport Index

Yet, in a study by Henley & Partners, more privileged states such as Germany, Sweden, and Canada were in the enviable position to travel visa-free to 170-plus countries, out of a possible 218 in 2016. Contrast this to countries such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan with severely constrained passport power, and we easily notice the presence of a neat North-South divide. The truth remains that no matter how far we have progressed with globalisation, global accessibility is still not fairly distributed. Or in other words, as a group of rich nations boast exorbitant visa-free scores and are free to travel far and wide, the less privileged majority seem eternally condemned to an obstacle race of bureaucratic hurdles. The usual rigmarole of long visa queues, hefty fees, extensive paperwork and higher odds of rejection awaits them.

In short, small justice for small states is the order of the day.

If we believe travel freedom should be based on the individual, and not their skin or passport color, then the current system is a slap in our faces. Not only is it an outdated legacy from the 60s, but it is also an inefficient, unjust, and conflicted apparatus. Over the past few years, the world has seen potential terrorists use low-risk Western passports to travel abroad, creating more problems for global peace and security. If anything, this demonstrates that the “citizen” and the “passport” are two distinct entities that can no longer be treated as one. Thus, an alternative solution has to be found to prevent legitimate travelers being discriminated against, simply because they bear passports from countries X, Y, Z.

Apart from the moral justifications for visa-free travel, there is also a business case for relaxing administrative entry restrictions on short-term travelers. The “necessary” visa burden might imbue budget-conscious travelers with a negative perception of the destination. This will inevitably reduce tourism revenues, as countries struggle to attract loyal visitors and keep economies afloat. Given technological advancements and the obvious benefits of unhindered travel, how can nation-states still find excuses to not align their visa policies with the cosmopolitan, free-for-all agenda?

The World Passport

Just as money and telecom services move across borders through agreements between banks, companies, and governments, personal data and security information of travelers can also be shared through such a document.

The delectable prospect of a global passport is not new though. In fact, the concept was the brainchild of Garry Davis, who founded the World Service Authority (WSA) in 1954. The organisation then began selling the World Passport – a fantasy travel document in a bid to transcend the state-defined limits of the traditional passport. Premised on the fundamental oneness of humanity, the World Passport derives its mandate from Article 13 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), highlighting that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return to one’s country. It “represents the inalienable human right to freedom of travel on planet Earth” and “challenges the exclusive assumption of sovereignty of the nation-state system”.

In spite of the WSA’s proclamation of such lofty Kantian-inspired principles, their “neutral, apolitical document of identity” has suffered from an almost universal lack of acceptance. Only a handful of notable individuals, including NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange, have held honorary World Passports, albeit having little practical value. When only six countries have granted official recognition to the document, this remains a fantasy rebuked by reality.

Why Passports and Visas Matter

At the end of the day, we still witness the dictation of global political order by sovereign states that function as independent, rational actors. National security remains the topmost priority for almost all states, and protecting the territorial integrity and safety of their borders is of prime importance. Maintaining strict passport and border controls is serious business, given that cracks in the wall have only spelled disaster.

For example, in 1993, Ramzi Yousef carried out the first World Trade Centre bombing after entering the US on a stolen Iraqi passport. Over a decade later, Alan J Horowitz, a child sex offender, fled the US while on parole after having spent 13 years behind bars, only to be arrested in India with a stolen UK passport. It is distasteful to imagine the number of children he must have abused, as he travelled the world with passport access to 175 countries. While these are two separate cases, it is incredulous that such violations do indeed happen. The 9/11 Commission Report was, therefore, not wrong in saying that stolen passports are “as important as weapons” for terrorists, criminals, and fugitives.

Protest against Trump’s “Muslim ban” in front of the White House, Washington, DC USA | Tad Eytan

Passports, like economic sanctions and social media, have become weaponised in the age of religious extremism and transnational terrorist organisations. As a result, nation-states have become more inward-looking and territorial when it comes to protecting their borders from terror groups. This brings to mind the Trump Administration’s travel ban targeting six Muslim-majority countries as a case in point. Unsurprisingly, the blanket ban was justified as a victory for the safety and security of the American people, and also highlighted the precedence of national security concerns over notions of justice (constitutional rights) and rationality (economic gains) in the corridors of policy-making. Without “acting tough”, the rights of the American people would be compromised – a grave disservice to the dominant national security dogma. Only time will tell if the national security paradigm will survive the storm of technology.

Where does that leave us then in the timeline for change? In devising a new global travel strategy, states need to find ways to co-opt technology and security for the advancements of passports and visas. International borders are at a turning point, and today, the blockchain-enabled digital passport is gaining currency as a viable paperless alternative to the traditional prototype. Unlike paper passports, personal data can be stored digitally on an individual’s smartphone and accessed via fingerprint scanning. As travellers cross borders, information will be verified alongside biometrics to reduce the risks of identity and information theft. This enhances our control over personal information and allays concerns that blockchain might be used by the authorities to monitor personal data.

Checks and Balances

Although technology allows passengers to engage actively in improving global security, the risks posed by global terrorism and disease cannot be taken for granted. Illegitimate travelers have always been creative in bypassing security measures, at the expense of legitimate travelers who are often declined visas or refused entry upon arrival. And so, drawing a neat line between the two will remain difficult, and troublemakers will most likely find ways to outsmart the Bitcoin Passport to their advantage.

Meanwhile, national security will continue to feature atop every nation-state’s priority list as the cornerstone of statehood. It’s unrealistic to expect all states to declare unconditional visa-free status for all nationalities, as doing so would compromise border security and stoke public fears. It’s then vital to ask if national laws would take precedence over international laws or vice versa. Should passports and nationalities be treated as mutually exclusive constructs? Would all citizens give up their national passport as a document of national identity? Moreover, it’s helpful to ask if all citizens of the world would then enjoy equitable, unrestricted access to the digital passport. If the system is designed by the West, how likely is it that those in the remote corners of the world can reap its tangible benefits, as much as their Western counterparts? Additionally, how much would it cost, granted governments worldwide already tax their citizens heavily for many services? And who is the ultimate beneficiary of this all?

Combined, technology and security can make borders a gateway to opportunities, not threats. As long as governments and individuals synergise to engineer smart solutions, passports without borders are not far from the locus of reality.  To quote Isaac Newton, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” And as the world expands, we should be building these bridges to connect our best resource – we, the people.

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