In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers. -Herman Melville

The 2012 Olympic Games have just ended. Who doesn’t love watching athletic people do inspiring things?

While the Games are certainly about the athletes, they are also about national pride and they symbolize international cooperation.

The Olympic Games and the worldwide camaraderie they bring, with a few notable exceptions, made me think about what international relationships between states are like day-to-day.

This post isn’t about diplomacy, multi-lateral bodies, or even immigration.

It seeks to explore the politics of passports—the conduit of international travel for leisure, work, and cooperation.

Getting the Passport (National-Level Politics)
To travel internationally, one has to first be recognized as a legal resident of their own country or another host country.

In the United States, we commonly perceive ‘undocumented people’ as those who willfully avoid citizenship, permanent residency or even a visa, to avoid paying taxes etc.

The truth is most undocumented people around the world (and yes, even some in the US) are undocumented for less pernicious reasons, many beyond their control.

• Some are born into communities or countries that have not historically issued birth certificates or other identity documents.
• Some people can prove their birth, but may not be considered a legitimate resident due to their ancestry, political affiliation, or ethnicity.
• Some people have their identity paperwork confiscated, destroyed or misplaced when they flee persecution, natural disasters, or war.
• Some people are born into territories that are not part of an internationally recognized state.
• Some people have may have legally (or illegally) immigrated into a host country, and their legal status is in limbo.
• Some people simply cannot afford to pay the fees and/or bribes required to secure identity documents.

Any one of these reasons would make it difficult for a person to prove the citizenship or residency needed to obtain a passport.

Thus, one of my primary grievances about passports and other national identity documents is that they are very black and white, while many people’s lives are often lived in shades of grey.

Getting the Visa (Politics at the Inter-State Level)
Let’s say you’re fortunate enough to have the paperwork needed for a passport and your passport is issued to you by your home, or host country. Congratulations.

The challenge now is that you need permission to travel from Country A to Country B.

The rules for getting into Country B will vary depending on which country, Country A is. Some of these rules are based on:

1) Historical precedent (have the two countries normally been allies or foes?);
2) Reciprocity (i.e. you have rules favorable to me and I’ll have rules favorable to you); and
3) A deeper reflection of geopolitical politics (is Country A perceived to be powerful in the international arena?).

Which visa rules apply to you is all determined by those factors.

The ‘sorting’ begins at the application level.

First, are you required to apply for a visa? If you must apply for a visa, what sort of documentation is required? Is it just the application and a few passport photos, or do you have also have to provide bank statements, invitation letters and other supporting documents? How much does a visa cost? Is it cheap or expensive? Finally, how long does it take for them to process your application?

Did you know that if you hold a passport from the United States, you can visit the United Kingdom for up to six months without the hassle of a visa.

By comparison, if you held a passport from Ghana (even if you currently lived in the United States) you would have to obtain a visa to visit the United Kingdom.

Hence, my second major grievance is that because the requirements for visas can be too stringent or arbitrarily applied, they often prevent or encumber travel that is for perfectly legitimate reasons.

Getting into the Country (Inter-State Politics Again)
Clearing the hurdle of the one’s passport and visa paperwork is only part of the battle.

What happens when you arrive in Country B? Is your passport automatically stamped by an immigration officer? Are you asked a few questions and then your passport is stamped? Are you interrogated? Taken to a separate line or room to answer questions about your intentions? Are you even allowed in the country?

For the sake of security, yes, it is critical that countries are able to keep tabs on who is entering their country. This is why we have international terrorists watch lists, which by the way, Nelson Mandela used to be on.

However, my third grievance with passport politics is the level of aggravation some people are subjected to is unfair, especially, since others are essentially given a free pass.This sort of ‘nationality profiling’ rarely has to do with the traveler’s personal character, background or occupation. Far too often it is per-determined by the origin of their passport.

How the Politics of Passports have Hurt People’s Lives
Real Life Stories
• You work for an international non-governmental organization. You’re being sent overseas to provide support to one of the country offices. In transit, you’re stopped from going through a foreign airport on the way to your final destination. You have to be re-routed and lose an extra day traveling. You end up missing an important kick-off meeting that you were supposed to attend.
• You’re an American citizen who is marrying someone who is not. You’ve applied for visas for your fiance’s family to come and participate in the wedding festivities. None of them are allowed into the country, not their siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, nor their cousins. After intense lobbying and involving a few political big wigs, only his mother is allowed to attend.
• You’ve been appointed president of your local chapter of a service organization. You are naturally expected to attend the international conference on behalf of your region. You and the rest of your executive team head out. You arrive in the country where the conference is being held only to discover that you’re not allowed into the country. Your colleagues, who hold a different passport than you are allowed to stay, while you head home.

Hence, we have the crux of my issue with passport politics; they become the story of people’s lives.