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Who needs passports?

By Taras Frolov


After reading Maria Matskevich’s article on “How did the concept of visas come about?” a few observations ran into my mind that I would like to share.


The word “passport” originated from Old French “passeporte” which means “authorization to pass through a port”. Practically speaking it allowed the holders of such a document to pass a particular port without paying customs duties. So, it was considered not a restriction but rather a privilege.


After World War I one of the reasonings for wide introduction of passports was the protection of a person by his or her country while this person is in a foreign land. You might have seen that many passports say something similar to “In the name of Ukraine, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine requests all those whom it may concern to facilitate in every possible way the travel of the bearer of this passport and to provide the bearer with necessary assistance and protection[1]”. Again, the reason for introducing the passport seems to be person friendly.


In USSR, having a passport was a privilege to an even greater extent. Most peasants, as much as 37% of the Soviet population, did not have the right to a passport and, thus, were bound not to leave their “kolkhoz”[2]. In the Soviet Union it was impossible, unless you went to a neighboring village, to travel within the country without a passport, especially to such cities as Moscow or Saint-Petersburg (back then – Leningrad). In this situation most people also considered passport as something rather positive.


However, the passport is more a restriction than freedom, in my opinion.


First of all, even if we agree with the idea that a passport brings about particular benefits and privileges, we have to remember that any privilege has a contrasting side of discrimination. If someone could “pass a port” without paying customs duties while others had to pay, it was obviously not in the interest of those “others”, the number of whom, I guess, was much larger than of those with a “passeporte”. Not to mention, the described above USSR system which harshly discriminated against peasants. Introduction of the passport concept itself limited their liberties, including freedom of movement almost to the same level as that of slaves. Yes, protection of the state while a person is abroad sometimes helps, but fortunately, one rarely turns to such assistance.


The second point seems to me more important. Passports don’t only provide privileges to some people; they also allow for a greater control of them. Even citizens of those countries for whom “the passport was almost destined to be an object of freedom” as Maria quotes from National Geographic, are not really free, especially when compared to the situation when there are no passports. How is that? The reader might ask. I will explain.


A person needs to first actually get a passport, that is to provide various information about him or herself to the state. Next, the person’s leave is noted at the border control and information again goes to the government, the same as when he or she enters the country. Further, the passports can be seized and while I agree that in an ideal world a court order to surrender the passport when a person is suspected of a crime is probably justified, we don’t live in an ideal world.


In authoritarian states like Russia, for example, authorities don’t issue passports at all or in due time. This is happening right now – many Russians complain that they cannot get travel passports even though all deadlines have passed and there is no lawful reason to refuse its issuance.


Thus, while some might consider the passport a positive invention I urge you to look into all aspects of the concept and understand that the gain of this document might be less than benefits it provides.


[1] Wording from Ukrainian foreign travel passport. [2] This system was abolished in only in 1974.