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Edition #4
Fates and Choices
Elizabeth Rose
Edited by Andrei Andronic

Paper fates: How the passports we hold affect our movements, migrations and lives.

At the Serbian-Bulgarian border, a woman is taken to the side. We catch only fragments of conversation, and we do not speak Bulgarian. The woman cries as her passport is taken away for further inspection. The 2am friendly chatter of strangers, travelling together by coach, falls silent. We all wait. Minutes pass before her passport is returned and she is “welcomed” to Bulgaria.

— — —

The viability of a passport always has high stakes. Given that for the most part, we are not at liberty to choose the passport(s) we hold, and certainly not the places where that passport will be arbitrarily deemed (in)sufficient, the stakes and significance we confer to what is essentially some paper seems bizarre at best, and intentionally cruel (and often racist) at worst. In their capacity to prove identity or citizenship, passports are now needed in the UK not simply to cross international borders, but in order to rent or buy a home, enrol in higher education, or begin any new job. Second only to perhaps that thing we call currency, the power we bestow through these pads of paper is immense: passports determine our identity, mobility, employability, our very legality - and through these - our fate.

On the basis of where we are chanced to be born, and who we are fated to be born to, the path of our lives is dictated, and we have so little choice in the matter. In this article, I aim to discuss the role that both fate and choices play when it comes to securing, holding and using a passport. I raise many criticisms against what I perceive to be an unjust and discriminatory form of social and border control but, unfortunately, I cannot (yet) claim to know enough about the intensely complicated nature of mass movement management to offer truly meaningful alternative solutions - but I’m learning.

— — —

While we wait in the gathering grey dusk, I open my own passport to the front page and read:

“Her Britannic Majesty’s

Secretary of State

Requests and requires in the 

Name of Her Majesty 

All those whom it may concern

To allow the bearer to pass freely

Without let or hindrance

And to afford the bearer

Such assistance and protection

As may be necessary”

At the time I reflected on the sheer luck that I (and anyone born with the right to a British passport) have been fated to access such enormous privilege through such a declaration: to be afforded (in theory) such automatic protection, privilege and freedom to cross borders with little fear of refusal.

It is an even more bizarre privilege to reflect on now, given that the woman upon whose authority my passport rested and rests, no longer walks this earth. The fact that the validity of British passports registered under the authority of the late Queen Elizabeth II of England are in no way affected by the fact that she is no longer alive, speaks to exactly how bizarre and unfair the allocation of different passports, and their attendant powers, really is. What seems most unfair is that “powerful” or “good” passports only exist in a world in which they are countered by “weak” or “bad” passports – there is no powerful and weak, there is only more powerful because another is made weak. Unfortunately, “powerful” passports retain their value only because they are an exclusive entity, but given that we have no choice in where we are born, our first citizenship, and the passport we are thus entitled to, such arbitrary allocation and the long lasting effects seem archaic and unjust. Especially as the distribution of strong versus weak passports, correlates very closely to the divide between developed nations in the Global North versus developing States in the Global South – an allocation that both reflects the effects of colonialism and, in doing so, perpetuates them.

The strength of a passport is determined by a set of “simple” factors. Namely, the number of countries that a passport’s holders can travel to visa-free, visa-required, or with visas needed on arrival. Other contributing factors include whether the issuing country allows dual citizenship and how much tax they levy on overseas workers. The factors that determine when and whether visas are required for holders of specific passports, however, are far from simple, and often fail to account for the human holding the passport, or their humanity. That is to say, it is typically countries experiencing war/conflict or genocide and (subsequent) environmental or economic crisis that issue the weakest passports – and on the basis of insufficient visas or passport strength, it is these nations’ citizens who are most limited in their international mobility – despite being those most in need of international assistance, welcome and asylum. There are also those, who afraid of persecution, tracking or torture, choose to destroy their passports before they travel to safety too, as well as those who set out on long journeys to refuge, and lose their passports along the way, for example in the tumultuous Aegean sea. For all of these people, passport-less or in possession of a weak passport, and with no recourse to visa access, there are no “legal” means to enter most other countries. And yet upon entry, often by any means possible, for example, in a dinghy, or under a van, these refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are berated and vilified for not entering the country by legal routes – for anyone without a passport, and for many without a visa, there is no legal route into Britain.

Even for many of the Ukrainian refugees that the UK government encouraged to come to the UK, and welcomed through their “Homes for Ukraine” scheme, the issuing of visas – non negotiable prerequisites to entry – took days, and in cases weeks, that is before the UK stopped accepting visa applications from Ukraine entirely. If this is the fastest and most compassionate response a government in the “developed” Global North can offer, we need to do better. Especially as the UK government and people’s response to the plight of Ukrainian refugees showed the potential – though limited through insufficient development, attention and compassion – to open our borders, homes and resources in a way which is essential but previously unseen for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflict or persecution in Sudan, Eritrea, Iran or Afghanistan (among other places). We know we have the money for these systems to be further developed, we can see it in the budget for the Rwanda deal, now we need to see the motivation and long term commitment to creating sustainable and safe routes for refugees and forced migrants, regardless of passport or visa status.

— — —

Travelling, as I was, from Serbia to Bulgaria, east across Europe, I was all too conscious of the fact that, enabled by my passport, I was journeying in the opposite direction to so many of the contested border crossings that are made by those fleeing from conflict, away from the Aegean towards Western Europe - by those for whom a viable passport, visa and safe routes for refuge would make a world of difference.

— — —

There is also the factor of passport acquisition to consider. Even in countries with long, and often frustrating, bureaucratic passport provision procedures like France, citizens can be sure of the fact that they will eventually receive a passport. This is not a universal privilege. Unfortunately, corruption and prejudice continue to permeate governments world wide, and access to passports can still very much depend on arbitrarily decided bribes, and the socio-political climate of the issuing country. For LGBTQIA+ individuals in many countries, as well as those of marginalised ethnic or religious groups, acquiring a passport in the first place can be dangerous if not impossible. We do not choose our sexuality, our gender, our ethnicity, or our country of birth. If we should choose to try and leave, why should the ground we were fated to be born on, so limit the choices, the potential, we have to move, or to escape.

It is necessary to distinguish nationality, and holding the passport of a nation. Although we have no choice where we are born and thus which passports we are eligible to hold, our parents will make the decision of birth location for us, if they are able, often on the basis of familial or cultural roots, and in these decisions the potential for future international mobility may not factor.  We can, however, absolutely choose to love and engage with the culture we are in this way fated to be born into and, if later we choose to apply for a different nation’s passport, this need not detract from our choice to honour and engage with our first culture and home.

In an ideal world, we would never need to be tactical or politically prudent in our applications for new, stronger passports, because they wouldn’t exist as hierarchical items. Rather, I hope (– naively I’m sure, but what is naive one century can be common sense the next, so I do hope –) passports might be merely documents of identification, used to monitor the ebb and flow of people migrating and travelling freely according to their wants, whims and needs. For the fact is inescapable, the number of people who will be forced to migrate from the land of their birth will only increase from now on, the Climate Crisis renders this an inescapable truth. Though of course we still have plenty of opportunities to react proactively to limit the damage we do and minimise these numbers, they will still rise as Global temperatures do. I concede that eradicating borders, or border regulation entirely, is probably a little utopian (for now) , but it is essential that we are also proactive in our responses to transnational mobility and migration. We need to make transnational mobility and visa-free asylum a right, not a privilege afforded to a few, based on where they chanced to be born, the passport they hold. This is a choice we can make.

— — —

As the shaken woman regained her composure, passport tight in hand, and the hushed concerto of conversations among strangers began to crescendo again, a flock of birds was flying aimlessly, high above border control in the grey-white sinking light of the day. As if in poetic defiance. It brought to mind Garland’s oh-so-famous lines from the Wizard of Oz, “birds fly over the rainbow, why, then, oh, why can’t I?” These birds followed no pattern, this was no choreographed performance for our pleasure, theirs was a fluid, improvised and truly free dance over and above the border: borderless.

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