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The changing role of passports

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

While we currently cannot imagine a world without passports and travel documents, Sara Dehm’s forthcoming contribution to International Law’s Objects includes a quote by Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) stating that there was a time when ‘there were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I travelled from Europe to India and to America without a passport and without ever having seen one’.

Exactly the same point is made by John Torpey in The Invention of the Passport, a second edition of which recently appeared after its first publication in 2000: ‘As I argue in my book, th[e] [20th century] transformation in regulating movement created a new world that would be largely unrecognizable to those who lived before World War I’. The second edition contains both new and updated analyses of the place of identification documents in contemporary life and the development of passport regulations after the 9/11 attacks.

Passports are generally considered prima facie, but not conclusive, evidence of a person’s nationality. Therefore, passports, in the definition of the Max Planck Encyclopaedia of Public International Law, ‘are recognized in international law as official documents issued by national or international authorities to individuals enabling the bearer to offer some proof of his or her identity and nationality and to cross international boundaries’. Torpey has added that ‘the passport vouchsafes the issuing state’s guarantee of aid and succor to its bearer while in the jurisdiction of other states. Possession of a passport thus constitutes ipso facto evidence of a legitimate claim on the resources and services of the embassies or consulates of the issuing state’. In that connection, we have recently been able to witness a growing number of passport revocations in order to circumvent the prohibition of statelessness. Although passport confiscation and deprivation of nationality are separate matters, the former also has a far-reaching impact on a person’s life as a passport may often be required to open a bank account, rent accommodation or access health services.

As for the historical development of the passport, Torpey reminds us that free, mobile labour was either non-existent or very restricted throughout much of European and American history: ‘Both landowners and states sought to restrict the movement of slaves and serfs in order to prevent the loss of their labor forces’. Until the French Revolution of 1789, governments were in fact more interested in stopping people from leaving a plantation or farm than in keeping people from coming in. It was only by the middle of the 19th century, when both US slavery and European serfdom had declined, that people increasingly had the opportunity to move around.

The idea of nationalism and the creation of nation states in the 19th century culminated in the previous century with the triumph of nation states. The rise of the passport is therefore very much a 20th century development: it was control over the entry of outsiders that became paramount with the mid-20th century triumph of nation states. It is clear that over time this process has led to passports taking on different values depending on the issuing state. In Dehm’s analysis: ‘While international human rights law proclaims all individuals to have “equal and inalienable rights”, in reality, not all passports – and not all passport holders – are treated as equal by state authorities’.

While the widespread use of passports is therefore a fairly recent phenomenon, its role in the 21st century is unpredictable. One would expect that the intertwinement of passports and surveillance (in the form of border control technology and biometric identification systems) will only increase. Moreover, as Dehm acknowledges, passports may hinder identities that go beyond the nation state: ‘The passport is not just a prerequisite artefact for exercising the right to physically leave one’s country, it also paradoxically symbolizes the legal binding of individuals to states and thereby constructs a compulsory form of social and national identity’. Against this backdrop, it is worth considering that in the calculation of some economists easing border restrictions would double world GDP.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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