When a Johannes commented “If 150 years ago, you had said people would be traveling with passports and visas, you would have been laughed at” in response to my post on a borderless world, I found myself asking: what is the history of border control? Where and when did passports and visas originate? How did this paperwork come to be the norm?
In fact, one cannot discuss migration adequately without an understanding of the role of states, nations and identities – and yet, migration research and policies tend to take the role of states as given. The result has been in part a world that is highly segregated, where economics and politics clash. To now imagine a borderless world calls for an understanding of why we have a bordered world – how did we get here and how can we evolve from here to a place of freer movement?
Passports have been crucial to ensuring that states monopolize movement of individuals, and their initial forms can be traced back several hundred years ago. Prussia’s Imperial Police Ordinances of 1548 banned beggars as a threat to domestic peace, law, and order and in 1600s, Germany had laws to restrict servants’ movement and tie them more firmly to their masters. In England, too, local authorities had the power to send back to their parish anyone likely to become a public charge. These examples show the state’s exercise of power to restrict personal movement, although it was limited internally.
World War I led to a proliferation of identification papers in the US, France, Italy and Germany, and to the growing restrictions on cross border movements in the interwar period. In his book, The Passport in America: The History of a Document, Craig Robertson writes that these emergency passport requirements became permanent in the 1920s under the guidance of the League of Nations.
In the US, people were not happy with this new form of identification [also, people had to describe their looks before the invention of photography]. As a result, there was a movement in the 1920s labeled “the passport nuisance” as such a requirement was seen as an invasion of privacy.
Today, we take passports as a given; and even biometric identification seems standard these days. The revolution in travel coupled with the world wars catalyzed the standardization of passports, but the document has a history closely linked with state formation.