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

What not to do when creating special passports for vulnerable groups: Experiments with special passports and the role of the private sector

Noora Lori (Boston University)

The challenge: Why we need mobility without membership

In their opening essay, Jelena Džankić and Rainer Bauböck call attention to the central paradox of the global mobility divide: the people who are most in need of accelerated safe passage face the greatest barriers to crossing international borders. Vulnerable groups fleeing conflict, persecution, poverty, and climate change disasters tend to be concentrated in the Global South. Since mobility is a citizenship-based right, and access to pre-authorized cross-border movement is highly stratified, those groups also tend to hail from states that have “weak” passports and are therefore forced to wait the longest and pay the highest visa fees to cross international borders. Without “humanitarian corridors” that allow for safe passage under duress, vulnerable groups are forced to engage human traffickers and undertake increasingly dangerous journeys as “illegal” migrants. The limited number of displaced persons who are able to resettle to the Global North under current asylum and immigration pathways have to wait long periods of time to acquire citizenship statuses that would provide them with “stronger” passports and greater mobility rights. The challenge at hand is whether—with a healthy dose of imagination—we might conceptualise ways of granting vulnerable groups (likely temporary) mobility rights in the absence of full membership rights in response to specific crises. This would essentially require states to introduce different passport streams to verify the identity and “vouch” for different population categories: their own citizens and non-citizens who meet the criteria of “the necessity of flight.” We already see such variation in residency statuses and local identity documents, since states apply a range of ad hoc and temporary residency statuses that grant non-citizens (typically labor migrants and humanitarian migrants) temporary and partial authorisation to reside in the territory without accruing full citizenship rights.

Heeding this compelling call to reimagine global mobility controls is necessary but not entirely unproblematic for the contributors to this debate, myself included, who have shown that the creation of temporary and ad hoc legal statuses in the absence of full citizenship rights often suspends people in limbo and may lead to systematic precarity. As a social scientist I have been trained to diagnose problems, measure their scope, identify key actors, causes and alternative explanations, and pay attention to the long-term effects and unintended consequences of policy interventions. I have done this work when it comes to special passports, in my previous analysis of a case in which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) purchased passports from the Union of Comoros to issue to stateless persons and ethnic minorities in the UAE. But I focused on the problems this case engendered without bringing that same intellectual rigor to the identification of concrete solutions to statelessness or legal precarity, since (as Audrey Macklin reminds us), elaborating the details of a proposed solution is “where the devil lurks” and I am all too aware that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And yet, in an effort to take seriously Džankić and Bauböck’s charge of engaging with practical solutions instead of simply critiquing them, I want to first expand upon the UAE-Comoros Islands experiment to identify what not to do when designing mobility without membership.  I then discuss whether there are opportunities to design mobility passports by linking citizenship-by-investment schemes to safe passage under duress. In so doing, I engage with what the conveners of this debate set out as the third path for expanding mobility—“to radically expand extraterritorial access to desired citizenships, making them accessible to those who need but cannot afford them.” My response addresses the role of market actors and private companies that has not been discussed in the previous contributions to this debate. I proceed with considerable hesitation, since market actors are most motivated by profit-maximisation and least concerned with human rights. However, since the private sector already plays a key role in facilitating mobility without membership for high-net worth individuals by helping states sell passports for “wealth management” purposes, we should seriously consider how this sector might be engaged in efforts to expand mobility rights to vulnerable groups who do not have the financial means to partake in global mobility markets

Special passports: De facto statelessness and the pitfalls of mobility without membership

As several contributors to this debate have already discussed, a notable historical precedent of special passports occurred in the aftermath of World War I when the League of Nations issued Nansen passports to stateless persons and refugees. Another lesser-known contemporary case of special passports emerged in 2008 when a private company (the Comoros Gulf Holding) facilitated a bilateral agreement between the UAE’s federal government and the Presidency of the Union of Comoros. In this case, the UAE government funded infrastructural development in the Comoros Islands in exchange for the printing of Union of Comoros passports. These special passports were then issued to approximately 80,000-120,000 ethnic minorities and bidūn (stateless persons) in the UAE who, in some cases, were already in possession of Emirati passports that were subsequently revoked. I refer to this passport outsourcing agreement as creating “offshore citizens” because the UAE government transferred its own naturalisation cases to an offshore site, while the individuals themselves never actually moved.

This scheme took its inspiration from existing citizenship-by-investment programmes, but the UAE-Comoros “economic citizenship” programme was novel in several ways. First, and most important, is the question of consent. Under other citizenship-by-investment programmes, individual applicants choose to apply for a new citizenship status, typically to attain more powerful passports to increase their global mobility or evade (or minimise) taxation. In the UAE-Comoros arrangement, the UAE outsourced the citizenship cases of its own residents without their consent. Instead of increasing their global mobility or income, this new juridical status did the opposite, placing the passport recipients in a legal category with lower employment prospects and less mobility. Second, the way these passports were financed was also distinct. Instead of individual investment, this could be considered as a case of “citizenship-by-development,” since the UAE government provided development aid (including the construction of a major highway in Moroni, the capital of the Comoros) in exchange for the printing of Union of Comoros passports. Finally, while citizenship-by-investment is often a pathway for dual or multiple nationalities, this case perpetuated de facto statelessness. These special passports do not confer the recipients with citizenship or membership rights in either the Comoros Islands or UAE. The recipients are not entitled to reside in the Comoros Islands; on the contrary, they are explicitly banned from being able to do so. Instead, those who received these special Comoros Islands passports are allowed to continue residing in the UAE, but as “guest workers” on temporary visas.  This arrangement thus invents and codifies a permanently “temporary” legal status that strips the individuals of any meaningful membership or citizenship rights in any territory.

In my analysis of this case I found—precisely as Rebecca Buxton warns—that “without functioning citizenship anywhere, and without the ability to access a new citizenship, those with the proposed new travel passports may exist in a precarious position of de facto statelessness.”

Through interviews with people who received these special Comoros passports, I learned that this scheme was particularly disastrous for those who had previously held Emirati passports, generating systematic precarity by foreclosing their access to gainful employment, healthcare, education, welfare benefits and other citizenship rights in the UAE. The special passport recipients also face new problems crossing international borders. For example, one interviewee who previously visited Bahrain several times with his Emirati passport was held at the airport with his new Comoros passport, even though foreign residents in the UAE (including those with “normal” Comoros passports) are authorised to travel throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) without visas. When I attempted to intervene on his behalf, I was informed by the immigration officials in Bahrain that they consider these passports to constitute a security risk. Since the Union of the Comoros does not acknowledge who received these passports or provide any diplomatic protection or consular support for passport recipients, external security forces have no way of vetting who received these special passports through the UAE-Comoros agreement instead of irregular black-market channels. This suspicion is only exacerbated by the fact that people’s names were Frenchified and spelled differently in these special passports than in their previous identity documents, creating irregularities that lead border officials to view these documents as fraudulent. Finally, reports (and rumours) of government corruption and leakage in the Comoros passport supply have also contributed to an international perception of these special passports as “high risk” documents that could fall into the hands of terrorists or other security threats. In short, some pitfalls of special passports include a lack of consent, loss of citizenship and membership rights, loss of mobility, and heightened surveillance and suspicion of passport recipients.

Opportunities: The role of the private sector in facilitating mobility without membership

Having outlined some of the pitfalls of the UAE-Comoros special passports, are there any lessons to be learned from this experiment? As Gezim Krasniqi notes, “establishing an exceptional global mobility regime requires some framework of global consent” and special passports can only work with a high degree of cooperation between states and checks and balances in place, as well as the consent of the individuals concerned. Ideally, an inter-governmental or international entity would be tasked with acting as an intermediary between states and take on the responsibility of documenting and “vouching” for special passport recipients, as the League of Nations did in the case of Nansen passports, and the UNHCR does with its central population registry of displaced persons. Without transparency, cooperation, and reciprocity issuing special passports will undoubtedly lead to systematic precarity and de facto statelessness. At the same time, with some caution we might draw upon certain elements of the UAE-Comoros deal to reimagine the funding structure of citizenship-by-investment programmes. As Džankić and Bauböck note, “widely opening the door to citizenship for those without genuine links is a hard sell in democracies, since it devalues citizenship as a status of equal membership in a political community whose members share an interest in the common good and future of a particular polity.” While there has certainly been public criticism of passports for sale (such as in Cyprus), this industry has grown exponentially over the past two decades. Mira Seyfettinoglu et. al’s recent study examines the emergence of citizenship-by-investment programmes (from 1960-2020) to explain why over 20 percent of sovereign states in the world sell passports. While we might expect that political constraints in liberal democracies would make the introduction of these programmes less likely, the researchers found no evidence that regime type makes the adoption of these controversial programmes more or less likely. States across the political spectrum engage in the global mobility market, and instead of necessarily eradicating the citizenship-by-investment market by incorporating vulnerable groups, we have an opportunity to think through how we might redesign and rescale these schemes to meet the challenge of tailor-made mobility rights.[1]  

  1. First, each citizenship-by-investment transaction could be “taxed” to create a coffer of funds for special passports: a proportion of individual fees, agency fees, and state revenues from citizenship-by-investment/golden visas could go towards this fund.
  2. Second, states could be asked to allocate a certain number of passports to vetted vulnerable groups as a proportion of the total investor visas or investor citizenships that are sold each year.
  3. Third, citizenship-by-investment firms could be tasked with taking on a certain number of “pro-bono” cases as a proportion of the total citizenship-by-investment transactions they facilitate each year. We already see some developments in this direction, such as with Henley and Partner’s corporate social responsibility programme in partnership with the UNHCR and Arton Capital’s Global Citizen project.
  4. Fourth, the international donor community—including large corporations and private foundations—that already help fund refugee camps could also finance special passports through existing investor citizenship pathways (at a special lower cost).
  5. Fifth, states could integrate special passports into their bilateral and multi-lateral “mobility compacts” and current responsibility-sharing efforts to address the “migration-development nexus.” Instead of allocating foreign aid towards migration enforcement (interdicting and containing migrants in sending or transit countries) or economic development in sending countries, these agreements could also entail cooperation over security vetting and issuing special passports.
  6. Special passports could also be incorporated into bilateral or multilateral trade agreements and diplomatic negotiations over visa-waivers. These agreements could include clauses for the targeted granting of exit and entry permits to a number of special cases each year, as suggested by Lorenzo Piccoli in this forum.

This brief sketch of a re-imagined global mobility regime that links citizenship-by-investment to mobility under duress will no doubt raise objections, especially on the grounds of security concerns. However, as Kaija Schilde reminds us states, international organisations, and the private sector are all already engaged in the security vetting of travelers and individuals who have the means to purchase more powerful passports. This vetting is undertaken by the transportation industry when visas are checked prior to permitting travellers to cross borders, and when states outsource part of the vetting of travellers to visa-processing centers. Private security firms also run due diligence and clearance checks on individuals on behalf of governments. When it comes to tracking terrorist suspects and other security threats, there is a high level of coordination and intelligence sharing between states and security companies for surveillance purposes. And yet thousands of unaccompanied minors “disappear” in crisis situations. We make conscious choices about how and where security resources are mobilised, and those decisions can be changed: we can decide to bring expedited security vetting to groups who are in desperate need of safe passage.

[1] For a longer discussion of how citizenship-by-investment programmes may be repurposed, see Bernhard Perchinig, “Passport for sale: Selling passports to the rich to enable the mobility of the poor” (unpublished manuscript, July 2020).