Opinions — Global Passports and the Dilution of Citizenship

15 December 2016

Parag Khanna, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore; Managing Partner of Hybrid Reality, and Co-Founder and CEO of Factotum

Until just the past few decades, voluntary international travel for business or leisure was limited to the 1% elite of any society. Today, by contrast, over one billion people cross borders each year. This short-term human mobility is bedrock to the world economy. The tourism and hospitality sectors represent more than 10% of global GDP and employ more than 250 million people. Connectivity is their lifeblood. Travel warnings that cut off tourist flows are thus something of an inadvertent sanction. For example, US warnings against visiting Kenya have led to a collapse of the coastal economy and increased rates of drug addiction and crime that can blow back as terrorism in Nairobi.

The competition to attract flows of tourists, businessmen, and conventions has become a major force for dismantling consular frictions. At almost any Chinese consulate in the world, visas can be obtained within 24 hours by simply providing standard documentation and swiping a credit card. India, which for decades has received fewer annual tourists than tiny Singapore, has finally implemented an online visa-on-arrival authorization for most nationalities. The US has spent USD 2.8 billion on new border-smoothing technologies such as EntryPass, knowing that easier visa procedures mean more tourists and revenues spent inside its borders. None of this would be possible without the data-sharing networks that allow airport immigration stations to replace the expensive consular functions in embassies worldwide. In the coming decade, more automated check-in, security, and border control systems are planned so that passengers around the world are cleared for exit on arrival before they even take off.

Could digital technology and economic necessity bring us back to the bygone era of free mobility? For centuries before World War I, people travelled the world without passports. However, one century of world wars later, and we have stumbled into a world where bureaucratization and fear have heavily restricted free migration despite overwhelming demographic imbalances and economic incentives. Capital is welcome everywhere, labor not as much. And yet the benefits of immigration are always palpable both in the short and in the long terms. On a global basis, opening borders to more migration would alleviate labor shortages, increase usage of public and private facilities, jump-start economic growth, and boost remittances. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, even a 3% increase in labor mobility would add USD 300 billion per year to families at the end of the remittance chain, and a 10% increase in per capita remittance value would reduce the incidence of poverty by 3% across 71 countries. Michael Clemens of the Centre for Global Development argues that opening the world’s borders to even temporary worker flows could literally double world GDP. The total benefits of more migration are actually incalculable.

There is also a moral case for returning migration to its origins as a supply and demand system rather than one oppressively and inefficiently managed by nations and borders. Migration restrictions are among the powerful factors perpetuating the punitive effects of the accident of birth. The global division of labor that can bring human civilization to a higher stage depends on freer movement of people. People should have the right to define their identity as freely and widely as possible, constrained only by the willingness of communities to accept them. Mobility thus ought to be one of the paramount human rights of the 21st century.

The latest biometric and data-sharing technologies can liberate individuals from their country’s poor reputations or policies. An independently administered ‘global visa’ linked to Interpol and other databases could allow qualified individuals from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia, India, China, Indonesia, and dozens of other countries visa-free access to all participating countries. A global visa would not replace national passports as an identification tool or the benefits of citizenship (such as voting and landownership), but it would provide a supplemental verification for international access. Providing one’s personal data to the network of participating countries and border agencies may seem onerous to some, but for many it is a chance at liberation.

A global visa could also be invaluable for the 150 million semi-permanent migrant guest workers at the lower end of the value chain who crisscross the world’s farmlands, construction sites, and other infrastructure projects, recruited, transported, tracked, housed, and paid by human resource agencies and contracting firms. The explosion in the number of such mobile workers who may never return ‘home’ constitutes an entire demographic that depends more on the Independent Republic of the Supply Chain than any one nation. This global mobile workforce has limited rights; they cannot use public medical facilities and in places such as the UAE and Singapore are required to live in barracks that prevent mingling with the host population. While they are precariously rather than steadily employed, they also represent a growing opportunity for portable insurance offerings to access basic services where they may need them rather than having to negotiate new packages — or having none at all — in each new place they arrive.

National security is another major reason why mobility will inevitably be divorced from nationality — both for the privileged and for the poor. Passports alone confer little if any certainty over a person’s intentions. Western passports have provided a cloak of credibility, but even they clearly no longer guarantee liberal values. Soon all individuals will have to be treated as such, providing biometric data and submitting to more rigorous checks against databases such as Interpol in order to be cleared for entry — no matter what passport they carry.

It is difficult to think of citizenship as the basis of identity when it is up for sale worldwide, with countries engaged in a tug-of-war to recruit wealthy and talented individuals. European ‘golden visa’ programs from Portugal to Cyprus offer citizenship in exchange for real estate investments that can be sold after five years of guaranteed 5% or higher returns: Foreigners are effectively getting paid to trade up to European nationalities. St. Kitts sells passports to Russians, Iranians, and Chinese for USD 400,000 each, using the revenue to finance resorts and in return enabling its new citizens to travel visa-free to more than a hundred countries. Taxes, of course, are zero (or near it). Eric Major, CEO of Henley & Partners, a company that advises wealthy clients on such fast-track citizenship programs, says, ‘There is a growing breed of individuals who don’t have time to be in one country for more than four months.’

The competition to attract private investment by the globally mobile affluent class has reduced passports to what they really are: a travel document with varying degrees of convenience. This is clearly true even of Americans. While Americans historically rank at the top of national pride surveys, only Americans are taxed on their global income. This burdensome financial and bureaucratic friction has prompted approximately 4,000 Americans annually to renounce their US citizenship in exchange for that of Canada, Britain, Switzerland, Singapore, or a dozen other countries. Rather than join the rest of the world in limiting taxation to territorial activity, the US government has doubled down on its efforts to capture revenues from Americans’ global incomes.

China appears to have its own version of this problem: Thousands of wealthy Chinese politicians and industrialists have fled with their often ill-gotten gains to Canada, the US, and Australia, among other countries. China dispatches covert agents of the Ministry of Public Security to intimidate these rogue citizens into returning home before they seek asylum and US citizenship.

Inhabiting nations no longer means belonging to them exclusively. The great liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin cautioned against understanding history as the progression of vast, impersonal forces and favored a humanistic appreciation of complex individual identities shaped by family, business, national, ethnic, property, or other bonds. Each is operationalized in different ways; none have full sway over one’s decision making. A supply-and-demand world will feature ever more citizenship arbitrage, with loyalties not so much changing as dividing and multiplying.

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