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

New passport or new identity/category/hierarchy?

Gezim Krasniqi (University of Edinburgh)

The proposal by Džankić and Bauböck for a special mobility passport, which would provide different vulnerable categories of individuals opportunities for cross-border movement without the political rights of citizenship, is both enthralling and challenging. Above all, it is a compelling invite to the scholarly community as well as practitioners to think in bolder terms about the uneasy linkages between migration, citizenship and (in)equality. While I support the proposal for a special passport based on the idea of ‘necessity flight’, I would like to raise three key points that I believe require further clarification: legal identity/categorisation, enforceability and hierarchy.

One of the key issues that needs to be addressed in the context of the proposal for a special mobility passport is that of legal identity of individuals entitled to such special travel permits. Albeit the proposal’s scope is broad and applies in contexts of environmental and socio-economic vulnerabilities and needs, in order to be recognised as international travel documents, special mobility passports will need to register a pre-existing legal identity of persons, which normally is that of citizenship in a recognised nation-state. Yet, millions of people today exist in a situation where they lack citizenship (stateless people) and/or documentation to prove their status. Others belong to an in-between category of being neither citizens nor stateless as a result of their residence in irregular territories and polities that are caught up in a half-way state between full sovereignty and recognition or re-integration within the parent state. The latter include territories like Kosovo, Taiwan, Palestine, Somaliland, Western Sahara, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Donetsk and Luhansk (Krasniqi 2019).

Establishing legal identity and citizenship of such categories of people can often be a difficult task. For example, examining situations in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, Fortin (2021) demonstrates how individuals living outside the control of the de jure government struggle to access birth registration and civil status documentation in times of non-international armed conflict. Therefore, in such situations where a pre-exiting legal identity and/or citizenship – which the special mobility passport would authenticate and recognise – cannot be established, a possibility arises for such passports to ascribe not only new mobility statuses but also new identities to various vulnerable categories. This could potentially lead to a situation where various individuals, while benefiting from new mobility statuses, would have to contend with unwanted ascribed legal identities as a result of external categorisation.  For instance, in the case of individuals who live under a de facto authority (e.g., Somalilanders), the special mobility passport could potentially ascribe an unwanted national identity (that of the de jure authority, i.e. Somalia).

What issuing authority?

The question of establishing a (new) legal identity is inherently related to the second issue I want to raise, that of enforceability. Džankić and Bauböck do not provide a clear answer to the thorny question of who would issue such passports and how states could be made to recognise them. They argue that “negotiating special mobility passports will therefore require an international setting in which states are formally equal as well as strong mobilisation by transnational civil society organisations.” Establishing a special ‘passport’ recognised in a uniform manner by different national immigration systems would also require setting up an exceptional global mobility regime with trained personnel in countries around the world. Torpey’s suggestion that funding for both asylum officers and for those fleeing should be subsidised by the world’s wealthy countries through an independent UN agency, possibly UNHCR or the IOM, is a useful one in terms of the operationalisation of such a regime. However, that does not answer the question of the legal authority issuing special mobility passports and enforcing their recognition and acceptance globally.

Establishing an exceptional global mobility regime requires some framework of global consent. Various proposals in place such as the Global Compact on Migration, the Global Compact on Refugees, and the Model International Mobility Convention provide important blueprints on how this new and exceptional mobility regime could be organised. Mandating an existing international organisation or specialised agency such as UNHCR or IOM to issue such special passports would inevitably recognise their legal authority to grant identity, based on a set of pre-defined criteria, to individuals worldwide. In fact, albeit UN agencies are themselves very strict when it comes to recognising identity documentation issued by non-state actors (i.e. non-UN members), they themselves have increasingly engaged in developing digital identification systems for migrants and refugees. For instance, UNHCR has been creating ‘digital identities’ for refugees and displaced people in order to provide persons who lack identification documents with a digital identity that would help make relocation to a different state easier. Importantly, this ‘identity’ is not just centred on basic identity documents such as birth certificates, IDs and passports, but goes beyond and includes other information such as financial status and education credentials (Madon and Schoemaker 2021).

Biometric technologies are routinely used in the response to refugee crises with the UNHCR already in the process of having all refugee data from across the world in a central population registry. This clearly rivals nation-states’ monopoly over registration of their citizens. Whatever authority is mandated with issuing such passports (and identities), the use of digital technologies will be inevitable. However, according to Madianou (2019), biometrics, artificial intelligence (AI), and blockchain have all become part of a ‘biometric assemblage’, which in turn contributes to accentuating asymmetries between refugees and humanitarian agencies and ultimately entrenches inequalities in a global context, as various contributions to an earlier GLOBALCIT forum have argued. Despite the many advantages that the new digital technologies offer, their use in identity registration raises important questions of data privacy, usage and sharing, in particular in the context of the ever-growing involvement of commercial actors.

A new transnational category of individuals?

This leads me to the final point of discussion, the issue of hierarchy. The modern institution of citizenship is inherently hierarchical. As Stephen Castles (2005) put it, ‘all passports are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ ‘Hierarchical citizenship’ ultimately reflects the position of a state in the international state system. The question we need to confront is: Will this new passport create a brand-new international category of individuals with differentiated rights in the existing international hierarchy of citizenship? In other words, will ‘necessity fleers’ constitute a separate ‘rights-and-duty-bearing unit’? (see also Ottonelli and Torresi). Obviously, much depends on the criteria demonstrating the ‘necessity’ of flight and the established threshold, which require an international agreement. It seems to me that regardless of the criteria used to define ‘necessity’ (Acosta, Nalule), the proposed special mobility passport will inevitably lead to the emergence of a new transnational legal category on the top of the existing nation state-based citizenship hierarchy.

In sum, Džankić’s and Bauböck’s proposal provides a much needed breath of fresh air in the current debates on migration. The real challenge, however, is how to repurpose a 20th century idea and institution in a 21st century context of deepening growing citizenship inequalities and hierarchies, as well as declining international solidarity for ‘necessity fleers’.