What you should know about passports

Many months ago, I spent some time digging about the issues of passports and visas, which are just a way for the government to enslave their people. Unfortunately, having a passport, requiring it for travel, and worse, requiring a visa, have now become the norm, and nobody wonders why they have to produce such a paper to be allowed to move around... Worse, people support the idea of passports now. Government is the shepherd, and people are the lambs...

I would like to take the opportunity to quote Alexis de Toqueville before going any further:
"After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."
Alexis de Tocqueville, Book 1, Chapter VI - What sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear, Democracy in America
So here's a short history of the passport which really has been only used since the WWII and which tremendously reduced the freedom of people to move and work and contributed to a big enslavement of many. While reading the quotations, please remember Milton Friedman: "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program."

One of the earliest references to passports was made in about 450 B.C. Nehemiah, an official serving King Artaxerxes of ancient Persia, asked permission to travel to Judah. The King agreed and gave Nehemiah a letter "to the governors of the province beyond the river" requesting safe passage for him as he travelled through their lands.

Today's Canadian passports still carry such a letter of request. Inside the front cover is a letter issued in the name of Her Majesty the Queen. Like Nehemiah's letter, it also requests safe passage and protection for the bearer.

Not until the reign of King Louis XIV of France did these "letters of request" become popular. The King granted personally signed documents to his court favourites. The letter was dubbed "passe port", literally meaning "to pass through a port", because most international travel was by sailing ships. Hence the term "passport".

Within 100 years of Louis XIV's reign, almost every country in Europe had set up a system to issue passports. Besides needing passports from their own countries, travellers also had to have visas issued by the countries they wanted to visit, much as we have travel visas today.

The rising popularity of rail travel in the mid-19th century led to an explosion of tourism throughout Europe and caused a complete breakdown in the European passport and visa system. In answer to the crisis, France abolished passports and visas in 1861. Other European countries followed suit, and by 1914, passport requirements had been eliminated practically everywhere in Europe. However, World War I brought renewed concerns for international security, and passports and visas were again required, as a "temporary" measure.
A series of international passport conferences (1920, 1926 and 1947) resulted in a number of changes to the Canadian passport. The 1920 conference recommended that all countries adopt a booklet-type passport, which Canada began issuing in 1921. Another recommendation of 1920, that all passports were to be written in at least two languages, one of which was to be French, led to the first bilingual Canadian passport in 1926. The 1920 conference also recommended that passports should be valid for at least two years and preferably for five. It is interesting to note that, since 1919, Canadian peacetime passports were already valid for five years, with the possibility of a five-year extension.

The year 1930 saw more changes in Canadian passport regulations, reflecting Canada's growth and international status. Canadian travellers needing passport services abroad were now directed to the nearest Canadian legation instead of to a British consular office.

When war broke out in 1939, the United States government announced that Canadians would need passports and visas to cross the border. At that time, about half a million Canadians travelled to the States each year without any documentation. Tensions rose at border crossings when American officials began searching Canadian travellers culminating in a riot when a hearse was detained at the border. This led to the issuance of special wartime passports for Canadians travelling to the United States.

Until 1947, two kinds of passports were issued in Canada, one for British-born citizens and one for naturalized citizens. That same year, the Canadian Citizenship Act, which stipulates that only Canadian citizens are eligible for a Canadian passport, came into effect. The familiar blue passport booklet with pale pink pages similar to the booklets with blue pages issued to British subjects appeared at that time. As of July 1948, passports were issued by the Canadian Government only to Canadian citizens.

Between 1947 and 1970, Canadians could only apply for passports by mail to Ottawa. Requirements were very simple, and applicants claiming birth in Canada did not have to provide proof.

However, within a few years, the increased number of lost and stolen passports pointed to the need to tighten requirements. This need was reinforced by the escape of James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., using a fraudulently-obtained Canadian passport.

Wanderlust Magazine:

The oldest British passport still in existence was signed by Charles I in 1641. Three years later, Charles was dethroned and Oliver Cromwell’s miserablist regime developed an early prototype of the No Fly List by decreeing that no pass be issued to citizens until they promised they would not ‘be aiding, assisting, advising or counselling against the Commonwealth’. The No Sail List lapsed under Charles II who persuaded the secretary of the state to sign these letters so he could cavort with his floozies. Peter the Great, Russia’s ruthless modernising tsar, introduced passports in 1719 and, ingeniously anticipating the multi-tasking 21st-century ID card, used them to control taxes and military service.

England’s letters of safe conduct were first written in Latin and English but, in 1772, the government decided to use the international language of high finance and diplomacy: French. This didn’t change until 1858, which meant that Britain’s passports were issued in French even as the empire fought Napoleon.

In the 19th century, the passport system began to collapse as railways criss-crossed Europe. To the French government, the rigmarole of issuing such documents and checking those of every Tom, Dick and Harriet seemed pointless. In 1861, France abolished passports and many European countries happily followed suit. The passport returned, however, during the First World War in an effort to keep spies at bay.

The British Nationality And Status Aliens Act sounds like the dubious, legal fruit of the war on terror but, passed in 1914, it defined the first recognisably modern British passport as a single page, folded into eight, with a cardboard cover, a photograph of the bearer and a note of such details as shape of face and features.

Peace resumed in 1918 but the passport stayed and the format was internationally standardised in 1920 – the year the British version expanded into a 32-page booklet known as Old Blue – and again in 1947.

Mere passports were soon not enough. Such official pettifoggery as visas proliferated. Fortunately, the British government has largely eschewed such nonsense, even offering – from post offices between 1961 and 1995 – a cheap, simple visitor’s passport with which Britons could enter 25 countries. But since the late 1960s, there has been a remorseless – albeit understandable – emphasis on making passports more secure through watermarked paper (introduced in 1972), laminating photos (1975), overprinting them (1981) and machine-readable burgundy versions (1988), which featured the words ‘European Community’ on the cover.

For some Englishmen of a certain age, Old Blue’s demise was a dastardly concession to ‘polyglot European bureaucracy’, the final blow for those who had never quite recovered from the British Empire’s downfall.

The end of Old Blue, and the increasing reluctance of some countries to waste money on stamps to colour our passport pages, took some of the fun out of travel and was a harbinger of officialdom’s new mood. This trend has culminated in Heathrow’s pseudo-military passport control desks, an ironic counterpoint to the video welcoming travellers to Britain.

New cost of travel
Security isn’t cheap. It is essential – we wouldn’t forgive any government that ignored the risk of further 9/11s – but there is a lingering suspicion that invoking terrorism is a licence for companies and governments to print money. The cost of a UK passport soared five-fold between 1994 and 2008. If the cost of bread had risen like that, a sliced white loaf would cost £2.75. If you choose the new eJumbo 48-page biometric passport, it will cost you £85, but it will get you into America without a visa (if your name’s not Robert Johnson).

The biometric passport stores all the information printed on the passport – and a digital description of the holder’s physical features – in a chip. The chip’s data is encrypted and protected by a key printed inside the passport. But the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) decided the key should consist of, in this order: the passport number; the owner’s date of birth; the passport expiry date. Eager geeks soon cracked this key with a reader you can buy in shops for £174. The Home Office insists this doesn’t matter because, a spokesman says: “Even if you had the information you would still have to counterfeit the new passport – and it has new security features.”

The race between forgers and issuers will continue. And in the biometric age, it will take longer to go through passport control. The Immigration Service Union says it takes eight to ten seconds to process a passenger with a biometric passport. With machine-readable passports, it took four seconds.

My most fretful hour at passport control came at Sheremetyevo airport (former USSR) in the late 1980s. A disturbingly boyish soldier, inspecting my passport and hand luggage, opened my Max Headroom joke book to find a cartoon of a Cossack dancing. He glanced over, inspecting me for subversive tendencies, stared at the cartoon for an age and then went off – I assumed to show this outrage to a superior. As visions of KGB officers and gulags raced through my mind, he returned, handed the book and passport back and, with no word or change in expression, beckoned me through. Later that same year, after dropping my passport on a Virgin Atlantic flight to New York, I managed to enter the US by showing my chequebook.

To me, these experiences symbolised the contrast between the land of the free and a bloated, statist society that was well past its sell-by date. Yet two decades later, the world’s passport controls are increasingly manned by the heirs of the boy in his military uniform.

No comments: