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

Who Needs Mobility Without Human Rights?

Yasemin Nuhoḡlu Soysal (University of Essex)

The “birthright lottery” (Shachar 2009) not only sorts people across nation-states but also determines their international mobility rights (Kochenov 2019). Ongoing wars and persecution coupled with environmental and resource pressures and the global pandemic bring into focus the inequalities it foments.  Issuing “tailor-made passports,” as envisioned by Jelena Džankić and Rainer Bauböck, could bring temporary relief for some who are in dire need of moving for reasons of self-protection, but their proposal also raises broader questions regarding the political and normative underpinnings of a solution in the long run. The authors invite the respondents to comment not only on grounds of principle but also possible practical solutions; I do not think these can be separated from each other.  My two points below thread through both these concerns.

What should special mobility passports entail?

The starting point for Džankić and Bauböck is “necessity-based mobility”. This is different from having mobility as a matter of individual right (a human rights prerogative) or based on nationality (a nation-state prerogative).  It follows on from the instrumental turn of citizenship (Joppke 2019), where passports are decoupled from “genuine links” to the territory or nation (Bauböck 2019). Passports are already sold to rich foreigners (Džankić 2019) and granted to those with dormant ancestral ties (Harpaz 2019), without expectation of membership. Džankić and Bauböck’s proposal has the possibility of turning the premise of these practices on its head, moving mobility from being a positional good to a necessity-based distribution.

Džankić and Bauböck have a broad understanding of the vulnerable groups who should be granted such mobility, such as refugees in camps in the Global South, asylum seekers on the borders of wealthy states in the Global North, environmentally displaced persons, and temporary labor migrants. Although the vulnerability of each of these groups is obvious, access to mobility is not necessarily the answer in all these cases. Special passports, to the extent that rich and powerful states also recognize them, would certainly be an improvement on the current functioning of the international mobility regime, which forces those fleeing wars, armed conflicts, and environmental disasters to desperate journeys and devastating separation from their families. On the other hand, the vulnerability of economic migrants such as temporary migrant labourers and border commuting workers does not often stem from their lack of international mobility, but rather their lack of labour rights as well as their lack of access to social security and personal freedoms in the countries in which they are employed (The Economist 2021). As Valeria Ottonelli and Tiziana Torresi point out, mobility options are not enough for temporary migrant workers who need special rights. Holding special passports that would allow them to move to another country is unlikely to make them less vulnerable, unless standard social security rights, equal pay, and labour protections are established.

Regarding the rights to be attached to the special passports, Džankić and Bauböck are vague. They emphasize the “choice” of destination and thus the opportunities that such passports would provide. I find this a rather limited way forward. In my view, the right to mobility cannot be separated from the right to a decent life. Without a set of standard rights and protections (right to shelter, work, healthcare, and education) attached to it, the proposed scheme would place the burden on the individual and their capabilities, resources and connections for materialising a decent existence.  The wealthy can pay their way to housing, health, and education but the disadvantaged would be “stuck” with their newly gained mobility. The Nansen Passport, which Džankić and Bauböck reference as a model, allowed refugees to move on to other destinations where they could join family or find employment. States are much more “selective” today in granting access to their territory and labour markets (de Haas et al. 2018). Some European countries for example, allow asylum seekers to take up employment and send their children to school but with time restrictions and other conditions attached (e.g. taking jobs that cannot be filled by the domestic workforce). A special passport scheme would need to go beyond such country specific hurdles for it to function. Substantive rights, as the passports themselves, can still be granted temporarily—but if passport holders find work and establish themselves in the country, there is no reason why this should not lead to the right to longer-term settlement, with or without the granting of citizenship. The path to citizenship does not need to be part of the scheme.

What should a global regime entail?

In putting their proposal forward, Džankić and Bauböck reject a number of alternatives – I think too quickly. Among the commentators, regional forms of mobility (Acosta), citizenship extension (Buxton), and global responsibility sharing (Doyle et al.) find resonance. I am in favor of the global option for which, as has been pointed out, there are various blueprints in place (e.g., the Global Compact on Migration, the Global Compact on Refugees, and the Model International Mobility Convention). Although criticized for being legally non-binding (but still founded on legally binding human rights commitments), these frameworks nevertheless set standards and normative legitimacy, and as such have potential for shaping the international agenda and governance (Guild et al. 2019). Yet as with any other international frameworks, they should be considered within the political context of the world order in which they are produced.

The postwar refugee regime was a product of the liberal world order established in the aftermath of the war and its institutions of national sovereignty on the one hand, and multilateralism and international cooperation on the other.  Initially it was shaped by Cold War politics and Western states’ self-identification as the protectors of liberal values and institutions.  Its scope was limited to the settlement of populations displaced by WWII and those “fleeing persecution by communist regimes” (Cohen 2011). Large numbers of refugees from “the Eastern Bloc” were thus settled in the West through this scheme. Only with the institutionalisation of the global human rights regime and massive decolonisation in the 1960s, did the refugee regime acquire a more universalistic stance.  Its coverage over time extended beyond Europe and political persecution to include wider categories of refugees emerging due to ethnic conflict, domestic violence, and natural disasters. As the regime became more inclusive and universalistic however, Western powers externalised their commitments in the same way as they “externalized their colonial memory” (Soysal and Szakacs 2010). As a consequence, disproportionately large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees are now placed in the Global South, in countries that have a lesser capacity to protect vulnerable populations (UNHCR 2020). While Western countries obsessively guard their boundaries, the humanitarian and financial support they provide falls short of what is needed to support the refugees and host countries in the South. 

On the one hand, the establishment of a more inclusive global refugee regime (moving beyond its cold-war imperatives), and the link between broader human rights concerns and asylum, strengthened the liberal underpinnings of the world order. On the other hand, the gap in its international governance and practices has generated significant legitimation problems, as argued by Boerzel and Zuern (2021). They contend that, in the post-Cold War period, the systematic shift from multilateralism and international cooperation to a more “intrusive” and “double standard” liberalism brought on the legitimacy crisis and contestation of the liberal order and its institutions, within and without. Accordingly, the paralysis of the current refugee system is not simply because “its scope is limited” (Džankić and Bauböck), but because its legitimacy is compromised by the very Western states that championed its globalisation.

Creating political momentum for collective futures

Moving forward, the prospect of a sustainable refugee and migrant protection regime, both as a short-term solution (e.g., special passports) and in the long term (e.g. the Global Compacts), is likely to depend on a more inclusive legitimacy and a substantive (re-)focus. Two issues have to be addressed:

a) The norms of asylum and protection of refugees are highly institutionalised. However, the sharing of responsibility is largely “discretionary,” leading to “operational deficiencies” (Betts 2015; Hathaway 2018). The Global Compacts for Migration and Refugees are a comprehensive effort toward global collaboration, firmly grounded in existing human rights standards. Nevertheless, they express the “political will” of those states which sign them (Guild et al. 2019), confirming the unresolved tension between the two principles of the liberal world order, state sovereignty and human rights, both re-interpreting each other. While an “imposed” system may not be in the cards (Doyle et al.), for any proposed scheme within the context of the Compacts or beyond to carry legitimacy and be operational, Western states’ willingness to treat the states in the South as equal stakeholders and their commitment to contribute in a systematic and proportionate manner are pivotal. Resettlement quotas, short-term humanitarian visa/passport schemes, direct aid, and long-term development investment could all be part of operational strategies as long as states take responsibility for the common approach (Betts and Collier 2015; Gammeltoft-Hansen and Tan 2017).   

b) The “collective memory” of  past national atrocities was a crucial cultural catalyst in the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention (Levy and Sznaider 2010). The Convention remains a robust source of norms, and its interpretation expanded over time to become more inclusive. Building on it, it is possible to imagine climate and environmental challenges, as they are a threat to global security and entangle countries in a collective future, reinvigorating mobilisation for global action and cooperation. Environmental causes account for an increasingly bigger proportion of displacements and migrations, and are already incorporated into national legislation in certain countries (Acosta). They affect not only distant places but those closer to home, not only global but also national stability and interests.  Importantly, such a re-focus could help go beyond the forced dichotomies between the North and South, between asylum/refugee and economic migrant categories, between mobility and protection (Awad and Natarajan 2018). With a growing global movement and awareness supporting it, a collective future optic might have the best chance of creating the political momentum necessary for long term legitimacy and cooperation, despite likely opposition in many quarters.