It is hard to imagine today, but barely a century ago, the passport was considered a controversial requirement for international travel.
In 1920 a London newspaper declared the passport to be ‘an expensive farce, and one which wastes an enormous amount of time.’
UTS Law academic, Dr Sara Dehm has explored the history and development of the passport as an object of international law.
She points out that there were some moves to dispense with the document after WWI.
At the League of Nations Conference, some delegates wanted the passport system abolished because of its restrictive effect on individual movement. Later, officials in international organisations argued for 'bilateral agreements between states to reduce or waive the requirement of passports'.
However, a document which was standardised in part to ease movement for certain travellers across borders has evolved into something very different.
Some passports in effect do the opposite, resulting in stasis for the individuals concerned. The passport affects people’s experience of travelling and increases the ability of state authorities to surveil individual travellers.
And, despite the lofty proclamations of international human rights law, not all passports and not all passport holders are treated as equal by state authorities.
In fact, some passports are more ‘equal’ than others – for example, Germany and Singapore share the highest rating because their passports allow visa-less entry to 166 countries. By comparison, an Afghanistan passport allows entry into just 30 countries without a visa.
A recent Sydney airport trial using facial recognition software instead of a physical passport merely served to emphasise the discrimination which restricts human mobility on the basis of nationality.
Dr Dehm says only a radical overhaul of the international system of border controls, visa requirements and policing will address this discrimination over who gets to move freely around the world in the 21st century.
This research is the subject of one chapter in International Law’s Objects (Cambridge University Press, UK, forthcoming 2018) edited by Jessie Hohmann (Queen Mary) and Daniel Joyce (UNSW Law). The chapter text on the passport is available here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3033400