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Please hand me a Stateless Passport, Sir!

Deliberations about a passport that doesn't yet exist

"Now, if you had a stateless passport and your government was truly ferocious and destructive, then you wouldn't need to flee into the bureaucratic limbo of another country's refugee policy; you wouldn't have to resort to desperation as you'd already be a citizen of the world, a free citizen of everywhere..."

from PopMatters
5 July 2005
by Rino Breebaart

About PopMatters: PopMatters is an international magazine of cultural criticism. Our scope is broad and covers most cultural products, including music, television, films, books, video games, computer software, theatre, the visual arts, and the Internet. Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Our goal is to reach the broadest possible audience with intelligent and thought-provoking writing that is often not readily available within the mainstream mass media.

I think two of the most important and real freedoms we can enjoy today are freedom of movement and freedom of lifestyle. European citizens are lucky in this regard because their passports allow them to live and work in any of the EU member states. This means that the economic or social limitations inherent to one country cannot prevent people from moving to another state if there's more work or relatively more tolerance to be found there.

Being a European citizen means a lot of things, with the quality of being European over mere national identification of special note. We take pride in this kind of federal citizenship instead of being French or Dutch or German, as we enjoy our roles in something bigger while retaining the language and culture of our homelands. It also means that geographic borders are effectively neutralised and de-politicised: national governments now have to be mindful of acting consistently with the rest of Europe due to their heightened accountability to (and greater influence with) the EU, which means there's greater connective interaction and freedom to move for each nation's respective people.

In an ideal world, such an extensive devolution of the border mentality might actually induce many countries to work together and take the sting out of nationalistic politics. The problem is that borders will remain intact as long as there are nationalistic politicians willing to fight over them, and economic reasons to keep defending national identity and perceived independence. One first thinks of countries rich in natural resources.

The EU is far from perfect though; the continuing expansion of the EU into former Soviet Bloc countries like Poland isn't without problems. For instance, the border between the EU and Russia is becoming more politicised as the latter feels threatened by the wealth of the former. There are even rumblings from the Russian side that this movement represents the expansion of NATO onto their turf, and must therefore be met with a greater presence of arms. In other words, the EU border may have a wider reach, but it's still a strong line separating two powers. Add to this the persistent charges from 'richer' EU countries about having to carry the newer, poorer member states in terms of development aid, and of savvy companies exploiting the cheap labour and land of the new states to the detriment of their workforces at home. Europe is in a long and complex state of transition and far from the consistent, harmonised economic power it can and will one day be. The recent constitutional referendums in France and Holland show there's still a lot of work to be done to get people thinking in a unified, cross-border manner.

But I want to take this idea of freedom of movement a little further. Since a world without borders is a long way from political reality, and since much of our economic and cultural exchanges already cross borders with amazing speed and advancement, I'd like this global mentality to be reflected in humanitarian freedom. We already have the loose principle of exploitation and cutthroat capitalism (sometimes glowingly) called "globalisation", but the vast majority of people on the planet don't have anywhere near as much freedom to move as modern capital (see goods and services) does.

Sure, it's great for some multinational companies to farm out their labour to cheap and inhumane sweatshops in Asia because it returns a tidy paper profit. Heck, from the companies' points of view, a wage of a dollar a day is already a great improvement in the local worker's lifestyle. But those sweatshop workers will never earn enough money to emigrate to America and enjoy the luxurious items they manufacture: getting a passport, booking a flight and moving to a new home are astronomical (and unrealistic) expenses for them. Add to which the trouble they might have simply to get a visa, especially if they're from a poor country or one that's mildly hostile to American interests.

Multinational companies' agendas are served by keeping borders real and economically un-crossable; this enforces the wealth gap and the massive inequality one sees globally which can thus be exploited. It also solidifies the political idea that closed borders are essential in keeping away the supposed masses of foreigners jealous of the American lifestyle and luxury goods to be indulged in. But if people could get a special passport that didn't recognise borders or nationality, things might be a lot different, and the economics might in turn also be corrected.

This is why the principle of a European passport is so empowering: a bearer wouldn't be limited in movement within the EU. If a state raised the idea of national identity higher, or shared it on a meta-level with many other nations, it would grant its citizens greater freedom. In a few decades it wouldn't be unusual for the average European to be born in one country, educated in a second (picking up two or three languages along the way), work and pay taxes in a third and retire to Spain (the European equivalent of America's Florida). In the decades after that, people could conceivably live and travel freely throughout the entire world, especially if their passports transcended simple geographical borders.

Alternatively, imagine you lived in a country where the government had become a bit too right-wing and jingoistic for your taste, like Australia (no, it's not all beaches and sunshine in the Down Under). Your passport identifies you as an Australian wherever you go. You can leave on a principled holiday whenever you want and bemoan the conservative Howard government with other backpackers and inquisitive customs officers; if you're lucky you might get a temporary working visa to another country and thereby ride out Howard's election term, grandly calling yourself a political refugee. But ultimately you'll have to go back and deal with the negativity that national identity brings to your conscience. "Sure, the Australian government shamefully supports the illegitimate War on Terror, sure their treatment of migrants is inhumane and absurd, but I still call Australia home..."

Now, if you had a stateless passport and (unlike Australia) your government was truly ferocious and destructive, then you wouldn't need to flee into the bureaucratic limbo of another country's refugee policy; you wouldn't have to resort to desperation as you'd already be a citizen of the world, a free citizen of everywhere. You wouldn't be tied down by your nationality or your nation's reputation overseas or potentially become subject to the fallout of that government's actions. If you didn't like it, you could move yourself and your taxes to another country more deserving, or with better laws and (globally) ethical governance.

How would you create such a passport? Suppose a global body or trust fund was set up by one or several wealthy concerns, a body that could dispense stateless passports. This body would not be a fixed State in the turf-and-border sense but a kind of discrete nationhood (say like the Vatican State) with a symbolic territory or even virtual spatiality (it could be just a website) and granted full diplomatic and territorial neutrality. Imagine a truly independent, neutral stateless-entity with no directive or program beyond human rights and the right of free movement, rights inalienable and humane (like freedom of belief, the right to due process, or the illegality of torture). Whoever chose to identify with this stateless state could apply for a passport for world travel.

Initially of course, many countries wouldn't recognise it diplomatically, least of all countries where citizens' rights are in dispute or whittled away by corporate interests. But eventually, say after tolerant nations like Sweden and Holland set the example, this document could be affirmed as a legitimate choice of a nationality for the purpose of travel. Maybe if all diplomats were required to carry one (or if the UN became the figurehead of the movement) such a foundation could mark a concerted attempt to engage and identify the human rights we all agree to, and set a world standard. Such a travel document would empower people of all pith and kin to identify globally rather than just nationally, to identify with broader humanity and their rights as human beings first. And I think that ultimately, this might have a follow-on effect for national governments that don't want to be left out or branded as oppressive.

Such a passport could represent a great advance in galvanising and normalising human rights, and counterbalance many of the inequalities experienced around the world (such as the idea of class-based inequality or second class citizenship, or the unethical exploitation of global labour forces that corporations and conspiratorial governments already enjoy). It would give freedom of movement to the people and eliminate the low status of refugees by recognising citizens of the world, which we all are. To be stateless in this sense may seem like an existential crisis or a global analogue for homelessness, but from another point of view it would translate into true neutrality and feeling at home everywhere.

Of course you'd still be a root-citizen of a particular country for purposes of voting, drafting and extradition laws (or lack thereof), but this universal passport could help bridge any attack on basic rights by a government not acting for the good of other world communities. It would also be a political expression of independence and conscience: I might be an Australian citizen for work and taxation purposes only, but I might not agree with the government and the way it acts internationally, so I could choose not to identify with it when abroad. I would then exercise the right of stateless travel and identify only with nations that respect all citizen's rights. Think of how empowering that would be.

In writing this I am expressing an idyllic thought-experiment, a legitimization of people who feel they are citizens of the world, who are mindful of the universality of basic rights and uncomfortable with nationalism in any guise. There are countless diplomatic and border issues to be considered here, and there's also the habitual slactivists who'll take this as an option of non-participation and shuffling of their responsibility to the community they live in. But who's to say the idea cannot become reality by starting on the Web, by establishing a fund with global patronage, by investing lobbyists in several key countries? Or maybe, with all the rights that corporations enjoy, by floating this fund (let's call it the Thoreau Fund) on several stock markets to create the necessary fiscal foundation to go on to become proactive for all peoples.

Economically, we see corporations acting as though borders don't exist for them. In terms of rights and equality, it's high time this economic force is corrected by a humanitarian movement. Psychologically, I think the experience of statelessness and identification with a greater global concern is already here in basic form as we are rapidly becoming more world-conscious through our travels as tourists. The truly independent citizen of the world only needs his/her travel document. For what freedom could be greater than personally deciding where and how you live?

Editor's Note: With this the final installment of Eurosis, the PopMatters team thanks columnist Rino Breebaart for his work and wishes him all the best in his future endeavors. Safe and pleasant journey, Reens!