The end of countries

World Passport

It’s right up there on the list of questions NEVER to ask at a dinner party: ‘Where do you stand on immigration?’ If you have two guests with opposing views on this then the night is pretty much guaranteed to be ruined for everyone. But hey, this is a blog, so let’s dive in…

I’ve been travelling for the last year or so and crossed various borders around the world. Fortunately I’ve never had to bribe anyone, although I have had an Ecuadorian anti-narcoticos guard try on my sunglasses and ask me if he looked cool.

It’s always felt so strange to cross a border with someone from a different country and reflect on the different rules that apply, depending on the ‘nationality’ stated in the little book we all have to carry. In Latin America, citizens of the US seem to get the worst deal, having to pay visa fees on entry to most countries whereas I, as a Brit, get my passport stamped for free. I met a Chinese guy who told me that there are many countries he would be refused entry into, and if you have ever visited Israel – no matter where you’re from – then there are certain other middle eastern countries who won’t allow you entry.

Nationality seems so real when you’re in your home country, but completely arbitrary when you’re travelling. It’s all down to what flavour of passport you’re holding – something you have little or no choice about. There seems to me to be something inhumane about treating people differently depending on where they are from.

Borders, visas, immigration rules and even the basic notion of a ‘country’ is a result of centuries of wars, revolutions and treaties. International borders with their immigration guards seem so real and fixed, but a border is just an imaginary line on the shfting rock of a tectonic plate, on a plant spinning round the sun which happens to be inhabited by intelligent creatures descended from apes. There’s nothing natural about a country or border.

Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder is taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. A building that is agreed to be territory of Ecuador, thousands of miles away. There are police outside it ready to arrest him if he leaves but protocol dictates that they will not simply walk in and retrieve this wanted man.

When I was in Ecuador myself, I met a guy who had renounced his US citizenship, and just set off on a big trip to explore the planet. As a human being walking the earth he didn’t feel that he should have to have a particular ‘nationality’ based on where he happened to be born. He didn’t want to immigrate to another country either. He saw himself as a free man.

I asked him how he was able to travel without citizenship, and he explained to me that against his will he was forced to have a US passport in order to be able to leave the country. That’s right, in the land of the free you are not free to leave unless you sign up as a citizen, even if you have no desire to return.

As far as he was concerned, his US passport was a necessary evil to get him out of the country and to move around a world where the dogma of nationality is so fixed. But then he showed me what he considered to be his real passport. Issued by the ‘World Government of Citizens‘ it was a passport not attached to any particular country yet had the familar feel of a standard travel document.

I thought that this International passport was a cute idea but I wondered how, in reality, you could ever expect it to be accepted at a border. He was ready for this question and pulled out a copy of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Most nations in the world have signed up to this declaration (notably, not the US), and article 13 states:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

In theory, any country signed up to the Declaration of Human Rights has to let you in, and apparently after leaving his home country on his US passport, he had managed to enter Ecuador using the international document. It seems others have had successes travelling on the World Passport too. Perhaps the notion of a country and nationality is more fluid than we are all led believe.

So where does this leave us on immigration policy? Usually the debate centres around short-term pressures like the affect on the labour markets and welfare if immigration is loosened, or the affect on genuine asylum seekers and human rights if it goes the other way.

What I always feel is missing from the debate is the long-term goal for the planet. What kind of world are we trying to create? My view is that where we need to head is a world where any human being, no matter where they were born, is free to travel, work and live wherever they like without the old concept of nationality restricting us, because it means that all humans would be treated equally no matter where they were born.

I’m not suggesting that this can happen overnight. There would be chaos if borders around the globe were suddenly opened. There are enormous challenges to overcome, like managing natural resources and figuring out how public services and law are managed in a world without borders. But if you look at Europe as an example of a continent at war 70 years ago, to the peaceful cooperation we see today, in spite of the current economic problems. It might take 50, 100 or more years to achieve a completely open world, but I believe that this is the ultimate goal we should be working towards. We need political parties to commit to this vision, and then form short-term policy that paves the way towards it.