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Pambazuka: A short history of the passport - Thoughts on global mobility from a critical European perspective - Aaron Scheid and Leonard Barlag

A passport seems like something natural and like an obvious necessity in the 21st century. A brief review of history, however, shows that this powerful piece of paper is a result of a rather recent development, that is closely related to colonialism and the emergence of nation states.

In spring 2015, Senegalese author Fatou Diome, whose works include The Belly of the Atlantic, caused a stir during the French talk show Ce soir ou jamais!. Only a month earlier, over 1,000 had drowned in one week in the Mediterranean Sea after their boat had capsized en route from the Tunisian coast to Italy. Diome vented her anger about the current European perspective and discourse on migration. And she expressed her belief that there is an underlying global problem that is rooted in the privileged treatment of a small percentage of the world's population that depends on a document:

'Europeans see Africans arriving, ok. This migratory movement of populations is tracked and visible. But you don't see the migratory movement of Europeans going to other countries. This is the migratory movement of those with power, with money. Those who have the right kind of passport. You go to Senegal, you go to Mali, you go to any country in the world, to Canada, to the U.S. Everywhere I go [...], I meet French people, German people and Dutch people. I run into them everywhere on this planet because they have the right kind of passport.' (translated from French) (Diome 2015)

Apart from unmasking a very selective European perception and use of the word 'migration', Diome addressed an apparent inequality. There is a structural force which privileged nationals can ignore while the unprivileged are confronted with it every day, namely the power of a passport. Clearly, this inequality is not a natural development, but has evolved over time, as a look at the history of this small document shows.

A review of the past

The history of the passport is one of control and distrust and is closely linked to the founding process of nation states in Europe. It is worth noting that the purpose of developing a document that controls movement has not been identical during the last two centuries.

The bible mentions documents signed by a king giving a delegate the right to move safely and unhindered within a kingdom. These so-called safe conducts were also used throughout the Middle Ages until about the 19th century which saw the emergence of nation states[1] . During their often painful founding processes, states and capital monopolized and expropriated the means of production, the use of violence and the means of legitimate movement. Yet, a monopoly only functions when enforced and controlled. This unleashed a process of implementing a control mechanism. The parallel introduction of citizenship meant nativism became natural. At this point in history, citizenship became a matter of descent and no longer one of residency. More emphasis was placed on a person’s country of origin e.g. German or French and this proved crucial to status and when claiming rights. It would be wrong to claim that the introduction of citizenship and control of movement was developed merely to secure the territory from foreigners. Another main catalyst was controlling one’s own citizens and distinguishing between travellers, expatriates and army deserters.

Despite the swift progress in developing identification documents, the end of the 19th century was marked by limited control of movement across Eurasia. Passport and visa requirements were abolished completely in Saxony and Switzerland while England, France, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries relaxed their visa requirements.

Liberals and socialists in Europe celebrated the free flow of capital, goods and work as well as the fact that a person was able to travel from France to Russia without a visa, as Ulrike Guérot and Robert Menasse write in Le Monde Diplomatique:

'To perceive today's border-free Schengen zone as a historical uniqueness, as an almost revolutionary achievement of Europe's recent history of integration is misleading. On the contrary: The remembrance of the fact that European freedom of borders was an obvious normality for centuries is important to be able to discuss what this European space should be today – namely what it has always been: A palimpsest[1] of borders which don’t exist, but only define cultural regions that have always made a European space out of the cultural variety in Europe.' (Translated from German) (Guérot and Menasse 2016)

The 'liberal' moment in the brief history of nation states was soon interrupted by two World Wars. The fear of external permeation and a massive influx of people fleeing violent conflicts lead to even tighter border controls. Violent conflicts also became a recurring event in the post-war period as people fled war and destruction. The limits of the nation state system became obvious considering the number of non-citizens without claim to any state. Moreover, the invalidation of passports for those leaving a country was practised and eventually led to the introduction of the Nansen passport[2] in Europe. The idea was that governments could issue an identification document without granting citizenship to 'immigrants' – an attempt to seal a leak in the system that was only meant to last temporarily.

Colonial heritage

European states also functioned as colonial powers and ruled over territories and people around the globe. These territories were exposed to decades of violent exploitation and the imposition of political and economic systems to replace or co-opt the existing systems some of which had been in place for centuries. These pre-colonial political systems were as diverse and dynamic as the world itself and accounting for all of them would fill libraries. Nonetheless, examples from pre-colonial West Africa illustrate how states and kingdoms followed a very different logic and this in turn impacted people's movements. The Ashanti Empire was able to control a vast territory because of its infrastructure in the 18th and 19th centuries, for instance, by turning roads, not borders, into a central pillar of state control. Other kingdoms such as 14th century Mali relied more on a 'centralized' state structure. It evolved around a capital with a rather diffusely defined periphery and state power 'conceived as a series of concentric circles radiating out from the core' (Herbst 2000). European colonialism rigidly introduced the logic of a nation state with clear, territorial borders and a certain 'global status' that inseparably comes with nationality. Apart from all the political, social and humanitarian problems that colonialism brought along, it also led to vastly limited mobility, not only globally but in the continent as well, as it separated previously cohesive political and cultural spaces. Nationalism and the post-colonial economic order even intensified this process and made it increasingly difficult for African citizens to travel, especially to the countries that had invaded and restructured their homelands.

Situation in the 21st century

From a European point of view, two main types of documents control and legitimize movement: The international passport and the identification card (ID). Both of them construct and sustain the system of nation states and citizenship by managing nationals in a state. The focus here will be on the international passport. This document is used to control the departure from the home country, entering a foreign country and returning to the home country. All those who have crossed a national border know the process of handing his or her passport to a border official behind a glass panel. This guard checks you and your passport very thoroughly and sometimes asks questions about your purpose of travelling.

Nonetheless, a German passport allows the holder to enter 172 of the Earth’s 192 countries without a visa. Reversely, people from only 81 countries can enter Germany without a visa – an imbalance that quantifies a passport’s power. The development of a passport hierarchy is an advanced process, which has only been taking place for some decades. It leaves citizens from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, South-Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo or Liberia at the bottom of this hierarchy and enforces a restrictive and often arbitrary system of visa issuance on them. This system allows economically and politically powerful nations to use people's mobility as a bargaining resource and reinforces their dominance. An example of this mechanism is the 2014 FIFA world cup in Brazil: European countries had a keen interest in granting their football-mad citizens free access to the host country. Brazil managed to secure liberalized visa regulations for its own citizens travelling to Europe in return. In this instance, the cultural event gave Brazil negotiating power and that in turn increased its economic and political power. When states lack these material and symbolic resources, they are less able to give their populations access to international networks, exchanges, education and jobs.


Alternatives become possible when we start deconstructing the perceived 'naturalness' of the status quo. A growing number of intellectuals, scholars, artists and political activists are pointing to the historical development of borders and making us aware of their violence and their arbitrariness. They argue in favour of social and economic advantages that non-existent borders might yield…a world in which we can claim that the passport was just an episode that lasted for little more than a century. It would be a world in which Diome's statement would ring true for everyone:

'We live in a globalised world in which an Indian might live and make a living in Dakar, someone from Dakar in New York, someone from Gabon might live and make a living in Paris. Whether you like it or not, this is an irreversible fact. So let's find a collective solution, or move away from Europe, because I intend to stay.” (translated from French) (Diome 2015)

End notes

1. A Palimpsest is a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.

2. An identification and travel document for Russian refugees (1922). Governments could issue the document without granting citizenship to the 'immigrants'. More than 50 governments agreed to its terms. Later the Nansen Passport was expanded to Assyrian and other Christian minorities.

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