Henley & Partners
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Henley & Partners

The Humble Passport: Here to Stay?

John Torpey, Graduate Center, City University of New York, USA

Imagine a world in which governments did not restrict people’s movement, in which people interacted directly with nature. Imagine that individuals moved about to feed themselves, to stay warm, and to keep safe. Gradually, they began to master their environment so that they could build up stores that would outlast their immediate needs. Some people then asserted their strength so they no longer needed to work as much as they had before. Instead, others worked on their behalf and received part of the fruits of that labor.

Those who worked for the benefit of others naturally found this arrangement unappealing and would often seek their fortunes elsewhere, where they would be unencumbered. In response, those who benefited from the work of others sought to constrain the movement of those they exploited, perhaps chaining them, or branding them to make it easy to identify them if they escaped. This sort of primitive arrangement occasionally proved a hindrance, for example, when workers needed to travel some distance to work. This was particularly true if workers had to cross territory controlled by others.

Two parties, the sender and the receiver, would be particularly interested in knowing exactly what the worker was doing. The sender wanted to be sure that the worker was going to return, because population was wealth — whether in economic or in military terms. Meanwhile, the receiver might be happy to have the new arrival but also wanted to be sure that the worker would not stay and make unreasonable demands on the receiver’s resources.

This story is an extremely simple version of what might have led to controls on human movement in history. The basic point is that there was once a time when movement was largely unrestricted.

In order to control workforces or outsiders entering for a variety of reasons (economic, military, medical, ethnic, and so on), control mechanisms and processes have grown in number and elaboration over time. Keep in mind that, other than in wartime, for a long time the main concern for states was to keep people from leaving rather than from entering — our major concern today. For example, slaveholders in the American South branded slaves to identify them, while slaves needed passes to ‘go abroad’ — that is, to leave their plantation. Likewise, serfs in other countries needed permission to travel; this would frequently be a document from their masters.

But these constraints would eventually be met with challenges: the first constitution of revolutionary France, the short-lived Constitution of 1791, mandated that people should be free “to move about, to remain, [and] to leave”. This was a forerunner of a broader trend. In time, people would come to view forced labor that needs to curtail individuals’ movements as indefensible. Concerns about entry would replace anxiety around departures.
Yet the Constitution of 1791 notably makes no mention of the freedom to enter. The French Revolution helped to nationalize politics across the continent. Then, during the 19th century, the right to remain became widely accepted and concern shifted toward those who were coming in from other ‘countries’ rather than those who were leaving.

As a result, the passport grew, over time, from a document often used to regulate internal movement into one that was seen as a mark of national citizenship. The reason? People were no longer unambiguously allowed to enter another’s domain, but they were supposed to be free to return to their country of origin. To do so, they just had to prove where they came from.
The change from controlling departures to controlling entries arose partly from the 20th century being the era of the refugee. The first coordinated global effort to address the problem of refugees emerged after the First World War, when the newly founded League of Nations made the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen its first High Commissioner of Refugees. He dispensed the Nansen passport to facilitate the movements of those who lacked the documents they needed to cross European boundaries.

After the upheavals of the first half of the 20th century, border officials would demand people’s passports as proof of identity and confirmation of their nationality. Gradually, however, it became clear that possessing some nationalities privileged those who had them, while other people required visas in addition to their passports because their nationalities were seen as dubious.

With time, passports were made with different technologies in the interest of greater reliability and security. From simple or elaborate documents issued under the authority of a non-professional diplomatic corps, they would gradually become standardized and filled with the bearer’s biographical details. But using a document to vouchsafe a person’s identity always poses a problem: is the bearer who they say they are and does the document really belong to them? The need to tie the document to the person named in it has produced various kinds of techniques: descriptions of the person’s bodily features and distinguishing marks, fingerprints, photographs and, most recently, retina scans, palm prints, and other electronic means of verification.

After the Second World War, the International Civil Aviation Organization has guided these efforts. This is a UN-observer body whose members collaborate to achieve passport standards and methods acceptable to all member states. Passport-like functions are increasingly being achieved by computer applications that permit travelers to traverse international borders more quickly and easily than standing in the usual lines, for example, the Global Entry program and the Mobile Passport Control app, both from the USA.

With transportation easier and mobility greater, some ask: does the world still need passports? It is interesting to recall that in the aftermath of the Second World War, the top West German law enforcement official, the interior minister, argued in the Bundestag in 1951 that passports were essentially a big waste of time. After all, he argued: “All the experts essentially recognize that the really dangerous people almost always find a way to get in and out.”

But we live in a period in which people are afraid of terrorism. In 2018, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to require “all nations to collect airline passenger data, maintain watch lists of known and suspected terrorists, and collect biometrics” to try to reduce terrorism. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that passports could be eliminated, even if terrorism is not nearly the threat that it sometimes appears to be and “the really bad people almost always find a way to get in and out”. The humble passport, therefore, is likely to stay with us — in one form or another — for a long time to come.

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