The United Nations Headquarters in New York is a notoriously difficult place to get into. There are official tours covering a few of the building’s rooms, but to get any closer to the action, you have to be invited. Luckily, I had an in.
In 2018, a friend in the UN press and communications department, the writer and activist John Dennehy, got in touch while I was staying in Manhattan. One of the perks of working at the UN—along with the possibility of being granted a diplomatic passport—is being able to bring guests in for drinks at the bar.
John warned me there was a strict dress code: shirts, “real pants,” and no sneakers. I managed in an all-purpose black dress and ankle boots with only a few scuffs, but Jesse, my partner, had to buy a new suit for the occasion. Packing for the more spontaneous invitations isn’t easy as a digital nomad with limited luggage space.
Passing from the New York City sidewalk into the UN grounds is essentially a border crossing—from American to international territory—and John is an expert in doing just that. His 2017 book, Illegal: A True Story of Love, Revolution and Crossing Borders, is about getting deported from Ecuador, being smuggled back in, and living as an illegal immigrant there.
My first look at the interior of the UN was a long hallway with the harsh lighting of a newspaper office and the stale odor of a war museum. It may have a reputation as one of the most global spaces on earth, but the UN Headquarters looks remarkably similar to every other European and North American government building I’ve visited: a place of rigid rules, polite small-talk, and terrible coffee. The bar resembled an aging hotel lobby, complete with its very own cyber cafe. The cluster of Windows XP computers along one wall each displayed the same error message: “This copy of Windows is not genuine.”
We drank a bottle of wine and caught up on life, work, and politics. As the bottle emptied, John looked around, edged forward in his seat and smiled. “Not a lot of people know it, but this building has one of the world’s most impressive art collections. Every nation donates a piece or two so their country is represented,” he said, draining his glass. “Want to take a look?”
The answer was yes, as John knew it would be. He walked us through hallway after hallway filled with antiquities from all 193 of the UN member states. It took us more than an hour to see everything. Our final stop was the Security Council chamber, and outside its doors was my favorite piece of the collection: a Mongolian gerege.
Figure: A Gerege in Mongolian script, found in the former territory of the Mongol Golden Horde (Dnieper River, 1845). Public domain.
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A gerege—also known as a paiza in Persian or paizi in Chinese—is an engraved metal plate with curved edges, about the size of a computer keyboard. Its inscription reads:
By the power of eternal heaven, this is an order of the Great Khan. Whoever does not show respect to the bearer will be guilty of an offense.
In the 13th century, the gerege ensured a person’s safe passage through the Mongolian kingdom. It guaranteed not only the traveler’s protection, but hospitality services from strangers along the way: beds, food, horses, and guides. One of the gerege’s most famous users was the Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer Marco Polo, who traveled through Asia along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. A gerege allowed him to navigate the vast Mongolian Empire and return home to Venice to tell the tale.*
The Khans used the gerege to give foreign merchants safe passage and benefits including tax incentives and hospitality services.** These merchants acted as business partners, conducting trade and making investments on behalf of the Mongols. An attractive trade environment, the thinking went, would spur economic development across the empire. A network of industries and hubs sprung up around the movement of gerege-bearers.
The gerege is often referred to as the world’s earliest known passport, but in today’s context, it more closely resembles a visa: it declared the purpose of a person’s travel and the rights they were entitled to. It didn’t grant its holders local citizenship, but a special visitor status instead.
The passport concept is both newer and older than we think. Just 100 years ago, no international agreements were in place to govern mobility documents. It wasn’t until after the First World War that the notion of a worldwide passport standard entered the global zeitgeist.
The earliest iterations of travel documents were regional and informal, allowing their holders “passage in and out of a kingdom for the purpose of his negotiations.” Such arrangements were essentially a handshake agreement between two rulers to recognize and respect each other’s authority, in the hope of preventing accidental wars.*
Passports steadily grew more popular, especially across Europe, until the 19th century, when new railway innovations brought travel opportunities to greater numbers of people. The earliest trains traveled at around 30 mph in the 1830s, and their speed had more than doubled to almost 80 mph by 1850. For the first time, rail passengers could start their day in Paris, have lunch in Brussels and fall asleep in Amsterdam.
A new wave of tourism began as millions took up the opportunity to travel Europe by train. It quickly became impractical for the authorities to check every passenger’s documents without massive delays, so the European train network became, essentially, borderless. France abolished its early versions of passports and visas in 1861,* and other countries soon followed suit. By 1914, passports had fallen out of fashion across most of the world.* This period is often referred to as the first “golden age” of globalization in recognition of the intensifying cross-border flows of capital, goods, and migrants.*
Contemporary narratives assume border control has always been a staple of sovereignty, but that’s far from true.* John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, wrote about his experience of crossing borders unhindered in The Economic Consequences of the Peace:
He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs.
Naturally, travel becomes more difficult during times of war and crisis, with borders closed for everyone except state and military officials. The First World War was no exception, but the global travel landscape changed quickly in its aftermath. People from all over Europe fled their homes to escape persecution or simply in search of a better life overseas.
Most new arrivals to the United States passed through Ellis Island in New York, where the Statue of Liberty and the National Museum of Immigration stand today. This checkpoint was responsible for processing 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954.* There, they were briefly checked for disease, questioned about their intent, and in nearly all cases, allowed to proceed onwards in their journeys. But this carefree attitude towards migration would not survive the war.
Figure: Ellis Island, New York in 1910. From the US National Archives.
In response to an uptick in migration, the US government passed two pieces of legislation intended to reduce the inflow of Europeans: the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. The number of immigrants allowed into the United States decreased dramatically; Ellis Island was downgraded to an immigration detention center, host only to those awaiting deportation.
The early 1920s also saw the League of Nations—the predecessor institution to the United Nations—begin work on a standardized passport system. At the time, officials tasked with checking travel documents from distant corners of the world struggled to make sense of them all. The papers were various shapes and sizes, written in different languages, gave inconsistent information, and were often impossible to verify with the countries that issued them. Governments hoped to bolster “the economic recovery of the world” by formalizing and simplifying border crossings through the creation of a common passport after World War I.*
Passport standards were defined in two conferences, one in Paris in 1920 and another in Geneva in 1926, where the plans were agreed for 42 nations.* The conferences decided the size, layout, and design of the 32-page passport booklet, as well as the intention for it to be only a temporary post-war measure. The transcripts express “hope for a complete return to the total abolition of travel restrictions in the near future”* and the need for “absolute equality between ‘nationals’ and ‘non-nationals’ in the eyes of governments.”* How intentions can differ from outcomes.
By 1927, the number of people in the world had reached two billion, almost doubling from a century earlier.* The case for regulating and tracking global movement is easier to understand in the face of ballooning populations—you have to know where your citizens are, who’s in your country and isn’t a citizen, and, as the League of Nations argued, help spread wealth and opportunity around. But early critics argued passports were more about control, even within a country’s own borders, than creating a more egalitarian society of world travelers. At the time of the passport’s invention in the 1920s, for example, married American women were literally a footnote in their husbands’ passports, unable to cross borders alone while married men were free to roam.* Some nations anticipated the darker implications of the passport and spoke out against what they saw as Western dominance over the global movement of people.* But less powerful countries held little sway, and citizens themselves, of any nation, had no real voice in the proceedings.
Moving around the world without a passport became impossible. And because paperwork begets paperwork, once the passport was established, it didn’t take long for the visa system to follow. Passports allow people to leave and enter countries, while visas determine whether they’re allowed to live and seek work in a territory. A passport is like a guarantee by the government that issued it (that you are who you say you are and that you can be deported back to the issuing country), while a visa is an agreement between a non-citizen and alternative government.
In the 1930s, governments wanted to resist the movement of German Jews into their territory, but couldn’t deny their entry on the basis of their passports. So, they introduced an additional requirement: as well as a valid passport, these travelers must have a visa too.* When Austria fell to Nazi domination, Switzerland responded by introducing a mandatory visa for Austrian travelers. The term “economic migrant,” regularly splashed across British tabloids as a slur,* was originally invented by the Nazis to attack Jews fleeing Germany. The Nazis even had a plan to tax Jews so heavily through exit fees, which charged citizens to leave countries at the time, they would be poverty-stricken by the time they arrived somewhere else. The objective was for Jews to be an economic burden on the new country and stir antisemitism.*
Figure: Spanish official passport used in 1944 by an official being sent to Berlin. Public domain.
The aftermath of World War II was a time of great upheaval as empires crumbled, countries gained independence, and geopolitics intensified.
The United States found itself in an advantageous position. As a government report from February 1948 put it: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. … Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”* In other words, the United States would prioritize economic growth and do its best to slow inward migration. Over the decades, it has largely succeeded, and influenced the rest of the world’s policies and opportunities in the process.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the connectedness of the world’s economies and cultures grew quickly. This slowed down from 1914 onward due to the World Wars and the Cold War,* but picked up again in the 1980s and 1990s.* For a brief moment in the ’90s, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to set the stage for another golden age of globalization. It was a time of low-cost communication across borders, cheap air travel, and backpacker culture. But the rise of terrorism brought new fears, restrictions, and chaos to the global mobility landscape.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked and crashed four US passenger jets, including two into the World Trade Center buildings in New York, killing almost 3,000 people and injuring another 25,000. All commercial and private aircraft in the US were grounded for three days, the longest pause in air travel since the industry began.* When flights resumed, the mood had changed: passengers were now suspects, subjected to new security measures and visa discrimination based on their country of origin. This has been the worldwide status quo of both air travel and border crossings ever since.
In 2017, then-President Donald Trump created new visa restrictions to stop migrants and refugees entering the United States from six Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, reversed the policy in January 2021,* but its four-year run is a stark example of the passport discrimination that continues to characterize US attitudes toward global mobility.
It’s not only the United States, of course. In April 2018, the Windrush scandal revealed UK government measures to deport or deter thousands of elderly British residents from staying in the country, most of them people of color originating from the Caribbean before the fall of the British Empire. Many had gone to school, built careers, paid taxes, contributed to pensions, and raised families in the United Kingdom, but their citizenship status and passports were quietly revoked in the technicalities of the British Empire’s dismantling. As the journalist and author Gary Younge put it: “This is not a glitch in the system; this is the system.”*
These are examples of the inequalities, prejudices, and colonial power structures still present in the way countries manage borders and mobility. Passports can be protective shields if you’re a citizen of a wealthy democracy, and restrictive tools if you are not. Today, visa rules are largely dependent on the relations between states and, since these rules were developed at different points in time, they often lack consistency across jurisdictions. Friendly nations participate in visa-free arrangements, particularly for tourist travel, and are more restrictive and discriminatory towards outsiders. Research shows that the liberalization of visa policies since the 2000s has mostly been between countries connected by blocs like the OECD or the EU, meaning nations that are already politically and economically aligned.* Citizens of these cooperative blocs have greater mobility rights than those from countries outside of them.
Over the decades, the passport has had new security features added to its pages: watermarks, holograms, disappearing inks, embossed letters, and many other details. The e-passport, pioneered by the Malaysian government in 1998, added microchips with biometric data; and technology will soon remove the need for physical passports altogether. Since 2012, the Australian government has been collecting facial images and fingerprints from passengers in the country’s airports. In 2015, the immigration authorities secured a five-year budget of AU$100M for next-generation biometric processing at Australian borders.* Just like the League of Nations passport committee a century earlier, the advertised goal is to ease queues and “transform the border experience” for travelers.
When face scans replace physical passports, global mobility essentially becomes a digital identity record with a set of inequalities programmed in, fed by a sophisticated and dangerous surveillance infrastructure. We run the risk of having technological innovation without the necessary rights and protections. A century after the invention of passports, and with all the tech we have available today, a fundamental update is long overdue. The opportunity for passport innovation isn’t in the hardware, it’s in the software—the ideas driving how we manage global movement.