issue 223 - September 1991
The jealous state
Passports are a deed of ownership by states bestowed
on their citizens as a privilege. But what about the citizen’s right
to freedom of movement? Richard Swift investigates.
In the 1920s a mysterious writer known only as B Traven penned his novel The Death Ship about a New Orleans sailor whose ship abandoned him in Antwerp without any identification.
As the US consul told the unlucky fellow:
‘Think it silly or not I doubt your birth as long as you have no certificate of (it)…. The fact that you are sitting in front of me is no proof of your birth … the Department of Labour may or may not accept my word that I have seen you, and that as I have seen you, you must have been born.’
The sailor was forced to sign on with the autocratic skipper of a ramshackle old tramp steamer – the ‘death ship’ – and wander forever from port to port, with no nation to welcome him ashore.
The sailor discovered what all travellers know instinctively: borders are not friendly places. Whether you are flying into any modern airport or crossing the Turkish frontier, the uniformed people who greet you are trained to be suspicious and are often downright hostile.
They stare at you, then at your passport picture, then back at you in disbelief, trying to ascertain whether you are a drug courier or terrorist, illegally looking for work or a place to live, a political dissident, avoiding customs duties and taxes, or perhaps even holding a criminal record. If you don’t belong (have citizenship) you are a foreigner, a refugee, a migrant, or in that telling phrase of the US Immigration Service, an ‘alien’ – or worse, an ‘illegal’ alien.
Your reception will depend on the thickness of your wallet or the colour of your skin. And God help you if no government has seen fit to grant you a passport.
The right to voluntary movement across borders clashes with the state’s claim to ‘ownership’ of its citizenry. A passport is a kind of deed of that ownership bestowed on the humble citizen as a privilege. They can be withheld, denied, seized or simply not recognized. The human right to leave (or stay) is inscribed in international law. Yet the twentieth century has witnessed a sorry parade of expulsions, exclusions, forced repatriations and arbitrary refusals of the right to exit.
Victims are defined both by their beliefs and their ethnicity. The Turks of Bulgaria, the Hindus of Pakistan and the Moslems of India, the Asians of East Africa, the Jews of the Soviet Union or several other countries have all been forced to leave or stay against their will. No continent is exempt. Offending governments profess all manner of political beliefs.
While violations of the right to come and go at least receive international censure, guarantees of political and economic sanctuary in another country simply do not exist. A government has the absolute right to block its borders against refugees and migrants. Thus boat-loads of Jews fleeing the Nazis were barred from North America and millions of African victims of war and famine cling to life in the legal limbo of unwelcome refugee camps just across a dozen borders.
Throughout the Cold War the West heaped diplomatic scorn on the Soviet Bloc for not allowing its citizens freedom of movement. Yet which Western country will fling open its doors to these people now such movement is allowed?
The Cold War was a bad time for freedom of movement. The US refused passports to the likes of Arthur Miller and Paul Robeson and regularly refused entry to intellectuals suspected of left-wing sympathies. The famous shoot-to-kill order given to East German border guards shows how serious the Stalinist authorities were about the ownership of their population.
The border is about control and the jealous sovereignty of the nation-state. Here the government carries out the rituals of inclusion and exclusion. And the bureaucratic antipathy felt for the ‘unstable’ traveller is reflected in the official treatment of gypsies and other nomadic peoples. The development goals imposed on the Bedouin of Arabia or the Masai of Kenya involve settling them down to sedentary agriculture. Such nomadic peoples cross borders without so much as a by-your-leave and are therefore out of control.
Borders seem fixed and immutable, a timeless fact of life. But actually they are an arbitrary and shifting reality. For example, the boundaries of Greece have changed six times over the last 150 years. At different points you might have been born an Albanian, Bulgarian or Turk rather than a Greek. The people of Alsace-Lorraine have been part of both Germany and France at different times in the last century. There are towns on the Canada-US border where some houses have their kitchens in one country and their living rooms in the other.
In the Third World – particularly Africa – the borders of nation states are the artificial construction of the administrative divisions of European Empires. There was often little sense of commonality to bind people together; it was largely chance who got lumped in Nigeria or in the Cameroon. And the revolt of disaffected minorities has scarred politics south of the Sahara since independence. The insecurity African nation-states feel about their borders and the loyalty of those that reside within them is a major cause of civil strife and the continent’s staggering refugee crisis.
Politicians often take advantage of the potent symbolism of borders to make mischief – or revive flagging popularity. The trick is simple – start a border incident by claiming part of some other country. The pretext for the bloody Iran-Iraq war was the Iraqi claim that their border with Iran lay on the east side rather than down the middle of the Shatt-el-Arab waterway. Tens of thousands were slaughtered to prove the point.
Just what comprises a nation and where borders should be drawn is one of the most controversial aspects of political history. Many peoples live under governments they deeply resent. Nation-building is often less a matter of geography or statesmanship than force of arms. The Timorese, for example, have loyalty less from conviction than from fear for the Java-based Govern-ment of Indonesia, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their kinfolk. The speed with which the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and perhaps Ethiopia are disintegrating speaks volumes about how paper-thin loyalty given out of fear really is.
In fact most countries are stretched between local loyalties and national priorities. Yet for most of human history – until about 400 years ago – we lived without borders or the nation-state. People had loyalty to their tribes, regions or com-munities. Traditional societies generally respect the individual’s right to leave or remain. Their sense of boundaries is fluid.
It is not a given that the nation-state will be forever the way we organize human affairs. Indeed today many organizations have a ‘global reach’, the most obvious and controversial being the transnational corporations that dominate the world economy. Unions and environmental movements are also developing their own international networks to check corporate behaviour. Churches and non-government organizations like the Red Cross and Amnesty International also work multinationally. Similarly, in the post-Cold War era the United Nations may well come to play a more prominent role – if it isn’t hijacked by big-power politics. And in the Third World, Pan-Arab and Pan-African sentiments retain powerful loyalties that challenge narrow nationalism and champion the free movement of peoples.
Today Europe is taking concrete steps towards the elimination of border controls and rethinking notions of national sovereignty. Beleaguered minorities must hope that greater decentralization and regional self-rule will result.
But some fear that Europe is building a fortress around itself which will exclude non-Europeans. Already racism is on the rise, along with the reactionary right. Disturbing graffiti are appearing on the walls of some German cities – ‘Yesterday the Jews, tomorrow the Turks’.
Borders reflect economic realities as much as political ones. Jobs, prosperity and personal security are magnets that pull migrants and refugees. And the fear of job-snatching hoards of foreigners replete with their political troublemakers and criminal elements is deeply imbued in most popular cultures.
In fact this fear has always been overplayed, for the counter-pull of family and culture has always been strong. At the height of the Great Atlantic Migration last century, nearly a third of all migrants left the wealth and opportunities of the Americas to return home.
Nevertheless it is unlikely that borders will be thrown open in a world torn asunder by economic inequality. On the highly militarized Mexican-US border, tens of thousands of hungry Mexicans and other Latin Americans already run the gauntlet of razor wire, desert, helicopters and dogs for the dubious sanctuary of the casual labour markets in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Borders of wealth
Would there be a flood of humanity if there were no border controls? Perhaps. But at the moment the situation is not satisfactory either. The US happily welcomes cash crops and capital from foreign countries – its just the people it’s not too keen on. Fat interest repayments on foreign debts and the wealth of rich Latin Americans will always find a place in US bank vaults – although this money would be better used to provide economic opportunities and jobs to keep migrants at home. But the money is not used in this way and so poor Latin American campesinos seek miminum wage jobs across the border – often to be turned back.
The relationship between France and its profitable West African neo-colonies is similar. In such cases borders are both a symptom and a cause of economic inequality – demarking and protecting the lands of relative privilege against those who would like to follow the northward trail of cash crops and profits.
B Traven’s outcast sailor on the Death Ship assesses his shipmates’ chances of going to heaven: ‘You and me won’t get in there. In the first place, we have no papers, no passports. You may depend on that all right; they ask papers from you when you come to the gate. Stamped by consuls and passport office clerks with the okay of an Episcopalian deacon. Or else they bang the door right in your face… the preachers say that everything in life is a preparation for the beyond… why in hell would you need so many papers here on earth if no one would ask for them up there?’ Good question.
Richard Swift is an NI co-editor based in Canada.