Should passports be free?

Published in The Gleaner on 14 May 2014 5 min read

In the Old Testament, Nehemiah convinces the Persian ruler Artaxerxes to let him rebuild Jerusalem.  But to get from Persepolis to Judah, he asks the king to write letters ‘to the governors beyond the river, that they must permit me to pass through’.  In the 2,400 years since Nehemiah’s journey, passports haven’t changed much.  Printed in bold blue letters on the inside of mine is a decree no more sophisticated than that of Artaxerxes: ‘The Minister of Foreign Affairs requests and requires, in the name of the Government of Jamaica, 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 least I don’t have to petition the Minister directly.  Anyone can travel under the full protection of the government, so long as she can afford snapshots, a visit to a Justice of the Peace, an hour in Half Way Tree, and J$4500.  While that’s a mere inconvenience for me, it puts a passport beyond the reach of the 1 in 6 Jamaicans who live below the poverty line, and effectively excludes many more who live payday to payday.  Still, to paraphrase the New Testament, the poor will always be with us (and unlikely to get a foreign posting), so what’s the real problem?

Forty years ago, Jamaica signed a United Nations treaty called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which insists ‘everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own, [except for] restrictions… provided by law’.  Put plainly, unless you’re a criminal, no one should hold you anywhere.  The treaty effectively codified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes freedom of movement, into binding international law.  Has the Jamaican government, among others, violated our right to travel by charging for passports?

Have governments violated our right to travel by charging for passports?

It might seem like a moot debate, since the cost of a plane ticket dwarfs the passport fee.  If you can afford one, you can get the other.  But that doesn’t answer the question in principle.  If a street vendor wins a free round-trip to Trinidad, should he be denied the opportunity because he only makes, well, peanuts?  Should refugees have to find money just to get permission to leave?  Jamaican documents are still relatively cheap, but that may change — US and UK passports are three times as expensive, and Turkey and Lebanon twice as costly again, driven in part by the ongoing arms race in biometric data.  By contrast, Europeans can walk from Portugal to Estonia without showing papers, lowering their practical cost to zero.

It’s also worth distinguishing between visas and passports.  Visas are about entry.  In the Caribbean, we’re used to being denied access to North America, blue book or no blue book.  Though it might be unfair and absurd, governments are free to discriminate who they grant admittance — America is skittish about West Indians, Barbados about Jamaicans, Jamaica about Haitians.  That’s life.

Passports, however, are really about exiting — most airports and seaports require them regardless of destination.  Armed with passports, even the most rejected individuals in the world, like information liberator Edward Snowden, can find refuge somewhere — after all, there are 200 nations.  But without them, your poorest citizens are imprisoned within the ghetto of your borders, especially on an island like Jamaica.

Without passports, your poor are imprisoned within the ghetto of your borders

It wasn’t always thus.  Passports became universally mandatory as an outgrowth of World War I mistrust.  Before the 20th century, most people crossed borders freely, if at their own risk.  It’s this philosophy — that as a citizen of the Earth, you deserve to traverse it — that the International Covenant seeks to uphold.

So let’s say, in a fit of democratic zeal, we want to abolish the application fee for Jamaican blue books.  In fact, let’s get rid of all the upfront costs.  Just show up, and the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Authority (PICA) will snap your photo, check your records and send you on your way.  But no matter the process, PICA has to cover its operational costs.  Where should the money come from?

General taxation would be worse than the current payment system, which at least burdens only travelers, who as a group are wealthier than non-travelers.  Better would be a levy that siphons money from frequent flyers and the well-off — for example, a departure tax on business-class seats or First World destinations.  Best of all would be a worldwide subsidy for border documents (The Nehemiah Project?), funded by the United Nations itself.  Developing countries could draw large portions if they agree to being monitored.  In that way, the humble passport — now accessible to all — could finally realize its potential, and put the mobility back into social mobility.

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