Licence to travel

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on July 16, 2020 Published on July 16, 2020

Right of access: The arbitrary fact of nationality — of what passport one is born into — distorts life outcomes   -  ISTOCK.COM

The passport, conceived as a document that allowed people to cross international borders with ease, has turned into a marker of caste in a deeply hierarchical world

Nearly a hundred years ago, in October 1920, officials from the various member states of the League of Nations gathered in Paris to discuss a little booklet bound in cardboard: The passport. This conference sought to make it easier for people to travel. The years of chaos and acrimony that followed the outbreak of World War I in 1914 had inhibited the freedom of movement. Countries imposed border controls where there once were none. They levied high fees on entrance and exit visas. And, in a distant reflection of our current times, they were wary of letting outsiders in following the 1918 influenza pandemic.

For many people at the time, these restrictions were new and unwelcome. Border controls and passport requirements did exist before 1914 — in the US in the 19th century, for instance, border controls evolved in a nakedly racist bid to keep out Chinese migrants — but they were patchy and vaguely applied, and most travellers could cross frontiers with relative ease. Few countries required travellers to possess a passport (Imperial Russia and Ottoman Turkey were notable exceptions). At the League of Nations conference, delegates were nostalgic for this era before the rancour of the war. Not allowing people to move freely condemned the world to more division and bitterness. The resolution issued after the meeting insisted that “the many difficulties affecting personal relations between the people of various countries constitute a serious obstacle to the resumption of normal intercourse and to the economic recovery of the world.” For those relations to improve, people had to be able to cross borders unhindered.

This conference effectively standardised the passport to what it is today, requiring all governments to adopt a standard type of travel document “identical for all countries” by July 1921. We would find this booklet quite familiar. It assigned its bearer a number, identified him or her with a name and photo, catalogued eye and hair colour and other distinguishing marks. Less familiar, perhaps, were its strictures for married women, who were in many cases merely appended to their husbands’ passports, to be enumerated as but another aspect of their spouse’s identity.

The British Indian government passed its Passport Act the same year as the League of Nations conference, implementing the standardisation of the document. But the modern passport still carried the legacy of centuries of practice. “In the name of the Viceroy and Governor-General of India,” the document asked foreign governments “to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford him every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need” — evoking the language of medieval letters of safe conduct, which asked for their bearers to be well taken care of and respected on the road.

Paradoxically, the 1920 convention had the ultimate goal of doing away with travel restrictions, not strengthening them. The standardised passport, the delegates hoped, would help suspicious governments overcome their wariness of foreigners arriving at their borders. But in the long term, it would be better if such documents were not necessary altogether. The post-war concerns of states made that difficult. The resolution acknowledged that the security concerns of member states “prohibits, for the time being, the total abolition of restrictions and that complete return to pre-war conditions, which the Conference hopes nevertheless to see gradually re-established in the near future”.

Of course, systems of border control and identification only grew more powerful and invasive in the last century. But the desire to dispense with passports didn’t fade. At a 1963 conference convened by the United Nations, officials discussed the possibility of getting rid of passports and allowing “progressively freer international travel”. Calls for passport abolition were shut down as “not feasible”.

What the delegates who met a century ago could not have imagined was how the meaning of the passport would change so radically. They described it as a document that would allow people to travel more easily. Only decades later, however, passports had turned into something else altogether, a marker of caste in a deeply hierarchical world. Not all passports are equal, and citizenship has become a proxy for global disparity. The bearer of a New Zealand passport can travel to 117 countries without getting a visa in advance. The bearer of a Somali passport can only go to 30 countries in that same way.

The arbitrary fact of nationality — of what passport one is born into — distorts life outcomes. In his 1987 essay Aliens and Citizens, the Canadian philosopher Joseph Carens wrote that “citizenship in modern Western liberal democracies is the modern equivalent of feudal privilege”. Restrictions on immigration echoed ancient feudal rules intended to keep workers on the land and deny them freedom of movement. “Like feudal barriers to mobility”, tough border and immigration controls, Carens wrote, only serve to “protect unjust privilege”.



Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction; Twitter: @kanishktharoor

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Published on July 16, 2020
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