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

Reimagining the norms of the international migration system: ‘Green’ passports for medium skilled youth

Oreva Olakpe (Ryerson University) and Anna Triandafyllidou (Ryerson University)

The Challenge

The current state of the international legal system upholds the right of states to exclude non-citizens from entering their territory, and citizenship remains a privilege. Passports signify membership and access to certain benefits in a state and remain the mark of an exclusionary system. Additionally, the impact of colonialism has underwritten the economic disparities, asymmetries of power, and the structural violence that created the chasm between developed and developing countries. The result is that poorer countries, usually in the Global South, have ‘less desirable’ passports, and the international migration system is discriminatory towards migrants from poor countries.

The main question that arises from the compelling call by Jelena Džankić and Rainer Bauböck is whether states will be willing to shed the exclusionary and hegemonic norms that dictate the exclusion of non-citizens, particularly if they are from poorer countries or if they are deemed to have ‘lesser’ skills. At the moment, the norms around citizenship and borders indicate that the answer may be negative. Nevertheless, using the case of EU-Africa migration partnerships we can perhaps imagine a shift in policy and practice. We are suggesting to replace the nationality principle (signifying the legal relationship between a state and an individual) with a passport that prioritizes the vulnerability of the person as well as their potential. We thus propose a special set of ‘green’ passports that are available to citizens from developing countries who are vulnerable and likely to engage in irregular migration (Triandafyllidou et al 2019). Let us explain our proposal in some more detail.

The Context

Stemming irregular migration and returning undocumented migrants have become key political and policy priorities for the EU already since the late 2000s (with the Pact on Migration and Asylum put forward by the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008) and even more so since the 2015 refugee emergency and the new interest in improving EU relations with African countries (see also the Valetta summit in 2015). Within this framework, stemming irregular migration has become the centrepiece of EU-Africa relations. This is effectively the context within which the idea of EU-Africa migration partnerships was conceived (Carrera, Radescu, and Reslow 2015). Numerous scholars have studied the impact of the EU’s fixation on return, readmission, and border control initiatives in Africa, and the reasons why migration partnerships have not been able to take off since they were devised; the asymmetric nature of the relationship between EU Member States and African countries remains at the root of the problem (DeGuerry & Stocchiero 2018; Beauchemin 2018; Brambilla 2014).

The dichotomies between origin and transit versus destination states imitates post-colonial hierarchies. Additionally, the domination of destination countries that have profited from colonialism and post-colonial structures in the international system, as well as the involvement of international organisations in global migration governance decision-making processes, create an outcome where a true partnership between African states and EU member states is implausible.  African countries benefit immensely from remittances and a young and large diaspora. As a result, enforced return and readmission, as well as border control measures are not effective in the long-run ​​(Adam et al 2020). Instead, the opening of new legal pathways to migration for poorer people is more sustainable and mutually beneficial (Sundberg Diez 2019). By ignoring the goals and objectives of African states, the EU is rendering its proposed partnerships ineffective.

A Bold Proposal: Green Passports for Medium Skilled Youth

With these factors in mind, we attempt to imagine how one could create special passports for vulnerable groups that would provide for opportunity for those who need it most, as Džankić and Bauböck advocate in their opening piece.

The proposal for special passports for vulnerable groups could work within existing migration governance initiatives such as the EU-migration partnerships. The EU is already actively involved in migration dialogues with countries in West Africa but has not addressed the issue of legal pathways for poorer and ‘lesser’ skilled migrants in the negotiations around migration partnerships. However, a special passport for vulnerable people (carrying further the idea already put forward in this forum by John Torpey) who would be at risk of migrating irregularly and who want to work in Europe but do not meet the high specifications for the existing permit categories, could be a potential solution. ​​The question of course would be on what basis to issue such passports. Unlike Diego Acosta we have in mind here passports for people who are not normally entitled to enhanced mobility rights in their country or region of destination. We rather focus on those who have the least mobility rights in the current system.

One possibility is a regional pilot for young people stemming from existing EU and EU member state programs. Special passports can play a role in EU-Africa migration partnerships and bilateral schemes between EU member states and West African countries. This regional pilot offering ‘green’ passports could be in the form of a ‘human development lottery’ similar to the visa scheme put forth by McAuliffe (2018) and not too distant indeed from the US diversity visa lottery program.

Firstly, it would be available to young people in participating states and managed through a centralised ballot-based selection (Triandafyllidou, Bartolini, and Guidi 2019). The selection criteria would have to exclude high-skilled individuals. This would be necessary to ensure that people who participate in the ballot would be those who are at risk of taking irregular pathways and that high-skilled applicants would not crowd out the people it is intended to help. The pilot would target young people between 18 and 35 years of age, who are medium-skilled (i.e. have secondary education) or have specific vocational work experience and hence a profession. Security and health checks are ingrained into immigrations processes already so integrating them into the passport scheme should be possible. Such a passport lottery would have an annual quota set by participating EU member states, based on unique factors including labour market demand, or hardship at the origin country (Triandafyllidou, Bartolini, and Guidi 2019). The passport lottery pilot would allow migrants who are selected to bring their immediate family members with them (spouse and children).  

In line with McAuliffe’s suggestions, the scheme could be implemented at the national level in participating African countries through the existing transnational frameworks developed for EU-Africa migration partnerships, as well as other bilateral migration governance schemes between EU member states and West African countries. Additionally, it should also be linked to existing community-based schemes in states of origin, which are already being implemented by civil society and religious organisations cooperating with governments and international organisations to support migrants who are vulnerable at the local level (for example, Idia Renaissance in Benin City, Nigeria). People who are returned to their country of origin through voluntary assisted humanitarian return schemes (including the EU-IOM Migrant Protection and Reintegration Initiative in West Africa for example) are actually among those who are most likely to try and migrate again as the reasons for which they migrated in the first place remain compelling. A special passport lottery would bolster these ‘lesser’ skilled or poorer migrants by giving them opportunities for regular migration. When people see that they have options to migrate with dignity and safety, they would be less likely to rely on smugglers or fall into human trafficking traps. 

The details and ideas of a regional pilot for ‘green passports’ for ‘lesser’ skilled migrants requires extensive expansion and development. However, the pandemic has shown that behind the economic prowess of the powerful countries in the Global North lies the labour of millions of migrants from developing countries working in essential sectors including agriculture, healthcare, retail, food, and transportation. Without their contributions, the impact of the pandemic would have been far worse (Reid, Ronda-Perez, and Schenker 2021). Yet, even though it is common knowledge that ‘lesser’ skilled migrant workers are crucial, states are still unwilling to open up pathways to citizenship or long-term residence for them. The allure of exclusivity of membership and access to the state is still an overwhelming reality on the ground.

In the end, recommendations for the creation of long-term regular migration pathways will benefit both destination and origin countries. These recommendations, as well as many others made by migration scholars and practitioners such as for instance a voluntary responsibility sharing scheme among industrialised countries as argued by Michael Doyle, Janine Prantl and Mark James Wood in this debate, hold the potential to contribute to the levelling of the economic disparities between developed and developing countries (rather than the preservation of those disparities) in the long-run. However, states have to be ready to take the first steps towards changing exclusionary norms and practices in migration law and policy.