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

The value of membership

Rebecca Buxton (St. John’s College, Oxford University)

Jelena Dzankic and Rainer Bauböck’s thought-provoking call to action asks us to consider the possibility of a new mobility regime, designed to assist “necessary fleers” and other precarious migrants. The proposal takes its inspiration from the Nansen Passport, a travel document that allowed many refugees in the early twentieth century to move across borders safely. I want to underscore here that I am (all things considered) in favour of the proposal. That is, by allowing migrants and refugees to avoid life-threatening journeys and access the rights of movement that are otherwise closed off to them, such a regime would certainly be far superior to the current systems of mobility. I do question why exactly powerful states would ever adopt such a system, though history shows us that, at least in Nansen’s time, this was once possible. Yet this will not be the focus of my critique. Instead of thinking about this proposal in terms of feasibility, I want to raise two largely normative questions. First, I want to consider the value of admission as opposed to substantive protection. Second, I want to question the democratic anxiety that underpins the need for such a proposal. I therefore ask why the extension of citizenship is not a better option for necessary fleers.

Admission without protection

First, the question of entry. Under the scheme proposed by Dzankic and Bauböck, certain vulnerable migrants would have access to some level of mobility through the issuing of a special passport. In particular, this scheme is designed to help those who fall outside of the normal protection regimes; for instance, those who do not qualify for Geneva Refugee Convention protection such as the climate displaced. It could also cover those in precarious working environments such as temporary workers. The proposed regime provides “limited and tailor-made mobility rights to those who need them most and who have no chance to acquire them via the citizenship route.” In other words, this passport is solely a tool for mobility and becomes decoupled from the political and legal status of national citizenship. The individual with such a passport would be able to move in and out of a state without acquiring full or formal status.

An immediate question arises here as to the value of entry as opposed to a more substantive form of protection. Of course, being within the jurisdiction of a particular state immediately places the subject under their care to some limited degree. However, the question of what exactly the individuals in receipt of this passport are entitled to might arise.  For instance, if we believe that those displaced by climate catastrophe are owed the same level of protection as refugees recognized under the Refugee Convention, then the idea of entry alone might appear questionable. Such individuals presumably do not merely need to be admitted, they also require protection, resources, and the capacity to exercise their political and social agency. Mobility in this case may enable migrants to move in search of work, to live with their loved ones, and to find more meaningful forms of community. All of these are good things. But there is a question worth asking here as to whether the provision of entry – considering the needs of ‘necessary fleers’ – is really enough. Of course, the conditions that we are operating under demand some realism; the likelihood of richer forms of protection are looking increasingly unlikely. A question that we need to ask ourselves in such circumstances, is: Should we settle for another way forward? For others in receipt of this passport, such as temporary workers, we could imagine such a regime leading to an increased level of choice. Such workers would be able to move in search of new opportunities, or re-enter countries that they had lived in previously. Perhaps, then, considering these two categories at the same time is a problem here. Why would a regime that works for temporary workers be well-suited to those in need of something that looks more like refugee status? Mobility on its own has often be pursued as a solution to displacement. Katy Long for instance specifically argues for a focus on refugee mobility. In her words, migration might be considered a “fourth durable solution” (Long, 2014). Mobility then could be part of the puzzle, but it is not obviously all that is required. 

Extending citizenship to “necessary fleers”

My second concern is the underlying question of democratic citizenship. In setting up the case for this new proposal, Dzankic and Bauböck argue that several other paths are unavailable. First, one could argue for open borders, though of course such an enormous shift in our conception of sovereignty is highly unlikely (and perhaps even undesirable). In his earlier response to the proposal, Diego Acosta favours the second avenue: better access to regional forms of mobility. The path I want to consider here is the third that Dzankic and Baubock reject: the possibility of new citizenship for precarious migrants and the forcibly displaced. They reject this because of anxiety around the value of democratic citizenship, writing “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.”

Devaluing the status of citizenship as a form of political status is of real concern here and, as the authors rightly note, citizenship is already being devalued with the increased ability (of the very wealthy) to buy a passport through investment. Likewise, the recent resurgence of denationalisation is another way in which citizenship is becoming more precarious. Rather than being a stable and secure status, citizenship has become increasingly contingent. 

Citizenship has value that is perhaps separable from these concerns. That is, citizenship often provides people with robust access to legal protection and resources. This is not the only way in which citizenship can be valuable, but it is surely one core way. As Hannah Arendt famously argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), “The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective.” We may think that, in light of the new human rights regime that emerged after the publication of Origins, Arendt’s words no longer carry the weight that they once did. However, I think we can still argue that citizenship has serious functional value. Indeed, a commitment to each and every individual holding functioning citizenship somewhere should perhaps be considered a pre-requisite to the legitimacy of the current regime of governance.

Citizenship essentially determines which state is responsible for which set of people. Or, as Rogers Brubaker characterizes it, citizenship is “an international filing system, a mechanism for allocation of persons to states” (1992, 31). Because of this, holding citizenship somewhere is of supreme importance. Peter Spiro (when discussing Bauböck’s idea of stakeholder citizenship) agrees that “membership in the state remains supremely important; by far the most important associational attachment of individuals” (2018, 204). Recent discussions of refugeehood have also attempted to take the idea of state membership seriously. For instance, David Owen’s legitimacy repair view of the refugee regime requires that everyone enjoys a sufficient level of political standing in some state (2016). Elsewhere I have argued that this is best interpreted as a view about membership in the state and its importance to security and the protection and claimability of rights (Buxton, 2021).

Dzankic and Bauböck argue that the potential extension of citizenship devalues it. Citizenship, if given to anyone who needs it, would no longer be a way to show a commitment or affiliation to a particular place; it would become purely functional. But perhaps we need to rethink why precisely citizenship has value. If we accept that part of the reason why citizenship is so important is that it provides a guarantee of rights and security, then this is precisely a reason for extending it to those most in need.

Another way to spell out this concern is to turn to democratic anxiety that pushes us away from more standard arguments for the extension of citizenship. By “democratic anxiety” I mean the normative concern that extending citizenship to these necessary fleers will undermine the value of citizenship and the democratic institutions that it supports. The view that I have partially defended above advocates for understanding citizenship as a form of protective status, but citizenship is also a form of identity, affiliation, and collective membership.

We can problematise this anxiety by underscoring that it leads to systematic exclusion, particularly for those covered by this proposal who are not able to access new the benefits of citizenship at home. The desire to build and maintain a political in-group necessarily leads to the production of an out-group. If those displaced from their homes are best characterised as lacking the effective guarantee of citizenship, then abandoning the potential expansion of citizenship confines those in need to a “permanent outsider” status. Whilst those captured by this proposal are surely benefitted by the right to move freely across borders, the adoption of this strategy potentially closes the door to more robust forms of protection. What is required, then, is a balance between, on the one hand, the concern that the extension of citizenship will undermine the point of democratic citizenship and, on the other, the concern that migrants freely moving under this scheme will never access the full protective status that is bound up with political membership.

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. That is, whilst ensured movement and the ability to cross borders safely is certainly preferable to the practices of border exclusion as they currently stand, we are left with the question of how we ensure the protection of people who, like everyone, are entitled to live a decent human life.

I said at the outset that I am all things considered in favour of this proposal. It is far superior to the current migration regimes. In particular, it offers many the dignity and freedom to move across borders, in search of work and a better life. However, it is worth looking again at the assumptions that lead us in this direction and perhaps questioning again how we think about the value of citizenship in the modern world.