Mobility without membership: Do we need special passports for vulnerable groups?

Greater mobility rights? Let us start with a targeted abolition of visa restrictions

Lorenzo Piccoli (European University Institute)

How can we protect those vulnerable individuals who need to move to places where they can find protection or work? I will answer this question sketching a less daring, but hopefully more immediately feasible option compared to those that have already been proposed in this debate – special passports (Dzankic and Bauböck), regional forms of mobility (Acosta), more inclusive access to citizenship (Buxton), global responsibility sharing (Doyle et al.), and green passports (Olakpe and Triandafyllidou). Starting with the observation that lack of access to visas is among the greatest obstacles to freedom of movement, my argument is that necessity-based crossing of international borders would be greatly facilitated if individual states abolished visa requirements for (1) citizens of specific countries and (2) particularly vulnerable groups across all or a range of different countries. The targeted abolition of visa restrictions is not the only answer to the question motivating this debate; but it is one we should not overlook.

Visas are significant hurdles against freedom of choice

Visas are official documents that allow their bearers to legally enter a foreign country. Depending on the visa category, they may entitle the visa holder to a temporary right to stay, which is sometimes accompanied by the right to perform economic and other activities. For most of the world’s population, visas represent the first and major hurdle to travelling abroad. Visa regulations are part of migration management, and they are governed by state policies based on the principle of nationality. As a consequence, the current visa system creates privileges in admission for citizens of richer, more democratic, and culturally closer countries (Recchi et al. 2021; Mau et al. 2015; Laube 2019).

If we want to create the conditions for an international system where individuals can more freely exercise their mobility choices, we should start by reducing the hurdles created by travel visas. For would-be travellers in the least privileged countries, these hurdles are significant. Even though there are different types of visas, which come with a diverse set of rights in the destination country (e.g., tourist visa, business visa, student visa), all visas require a substantial investment in terms of money and time spent to collect documents, fill the application, and wait for the response.

In an ideal world, greater mobility rights could be achieved by abolishing visa requirements across countries. This would come close to the first scenario described by Dzankic and Bauböck, open borders, but checks upon crossing an international frontier would remain in place, as well as targeted restrictions to border crossings – such as those based on a person’s criminal record. The problem with this scenario is that it is far from today’s reality. As Acosta’s contribution shows, visa-free agreements are being developed in parallel to regional integration initiatives – within the EAC, ECOWAS, EU and MERCOSUR – but the general trend is still towards greater rather fewer visa restrictions globally (Gülzau, Mau, and Zaun 2016).

A twofold proposal to abolish visas selectively

While full-blown visa abolition remains a long way to go, it is still possible to reduce the adverse consequences of visa regimes by implementing dedicated visa waivers. There are two different types of visa abolition that could be considered.

The first type is a visa waiver for citizens or groups of citizens of specific countries. An example of such measure is that of the United Kingdom’s recent decision to temporarily allow certain groups of Afghan nationals to relocate swiftly following the Taliban takeover in August 2021 (The Guardian). These emergency visa waivers do not create long backlogs that keep individuals in limbo while they wait for resettlement or protection – which is often a problem with asylum procedures, as highlighted by Doyle, Prantl and Wood. Instead, they allow individuals to enter and stay in the country temporarily before they can receive an immigration status.

In addition to targeted visa waivers for citizens of specific countries, I propose that governments introduce visa waivers for designated categories of persons, cutting across all or a range of different countries. While similar to humanitarian visas, visa waivers could have a broader scope beyond the protection of refugees who flee from persecution. Possible targets, for example, could be all individuals fleeing a territory where there has been a natural disaster, or all qualified cross-border care providers.

The targeted abolition of visas comes particularly close to two proposals in this forum: special passports (Dzankic and Bauböck) and green passports (Olakpe and Triandafyllidou). However, the crucial difference lies in the ad hoc bilateral aspect: country A could issue special visa for group X from country B, which would not entail mobility rights towards country C and thus not require international recognition, as the Nansen passports did.

The three advantages of targeted visa abolition for vulnerable individuals

Abolishing standard visa requirements for targeted groups of individuals at the discretion of state governments may look like a small step towards the objective of providing ‘a response to urgent needs and specific disadvantages faced by those for whom mobility is not a luxury but a necessity’ (Dzankic and Bauböck). Yet, targeted visa abolition holds three specific advantages.

First, like other proposals that have been advanced in this forum (Olakpe and Triandafyllidou), targeted visa abolition would help reducing the number of irregular migrants. When people see that they have feasible alternatives to travel abroad, they have strong incentives not to recur to smugglers and embark upon life-threatening journeys.

Second, this proposal could be rolled out quickly and incrementally. Governments could first pilot visa waivers for specific groups of individuals (e.g., unaccompanied minors, individuals fleeing a territory where there has been a natural disaster, cross-border care-providers or commuters). They could then expand them gradually to enable a broader range of necessity-based movement, thus avoiding public backlash.

Third, the development of this norm could facilitate the expansion of transnational networks and bilateral agreements. The targeted abolition of visas is not only a tool to uphold human rights; it can also promote student mobility and boost trade (Neumayer 2011). Indeed, there is a risk that targeted visa abolitions lead to what Dzankic and Bauböck consider a sub-optimal outcome: the proliferation of ad hoc mobility rights for different groups of individuals in different regions of the world. Perhaps one encouraging signal is that visa liberalisation has been listed as one of the tools to “enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration” in the Global Compact for Migration (Objective 5, par. 21 b). We can expect successful initiatives to inspire policy emulation and transnational learning. 


Contributors to this debate agree on the goal of protecting freedom of choice of those vulnerable individuals who need to move to places where they can find protection or work. Yet, there is substantial disagreement on how this goal can be achieved.

Legally, there are several options to expand the capacity of individuals who have necessity-based reasons to move. One of these options is the targeted abolition of visas. Visa waivers could be implemented for two types of travellers. First, citizens of specific countries: for example, those fleeing Afghanistan in the context of the Taliban takeover. Additionally, visa waivers could target specific groups across all or a range of different countries: for example, those affected by severe floods. The targeted abolition of visas represents a viable path to international mobility outside of the context of asylum and refugee law and with no need of international recognition. My suggestion is that greater freedom of movement can be more easily achieved not by further expanding the bureaucratic apparatus – that is, by creating new passports – but simply by reducing the impact of one of the most flagrant restrictions of today’s international travel system through the targeted abolition of visa restrictions.