South Africa has put its foot down over accepting the world passport as a legal travel document – sorry Mos Def – but could using it actually help monitor and aid undocumented migrants and refugees across the continent?
US rapper and popular actor Mos Def is in big trouble with South African authorities for trying to be a ‘human being’. The 42-year-old American, now known as Yasiin Bey or by his born name Dante Terrell Smith, was arrested for trying to leave South Africa using a world passport, a document issued by the Washington-based non-profit World Service Authority that declares the holder to be a human being rather national subject; a ‘world citizen’, if you will.
In keeping with the altruistic spirit of the document, which was created to legitimise stateless peoples who didn’t have official travel documents, like refugees or illegal migrants, Bey attempted to use his world passport as a legitimate government-issued travel document. South African authorities were not impressed and arrested him for immigration fraud (and also, incidentally, for overstaying his welcome with a visa that expired in 2014).
Bey is simultaneously banned from and detained in South Africa.
Bey’s position is murky at best: he says he cannot go back to the US for immigration and legal reasons (though no official document actually says he’s been ‘denied entry’), and he claims he and his wife and children all overstayed their allotted visa-time in South Africa because he no longer considers himself American but a ‘citizen of the world’, a status his world passport gives him. It’s hard to tell how sincere this claim is though since, according to immigration records, he’s entered and left South Africa more than ten times on his regular American passport already (including this time arriving in the country on his current jaunt with his family) and only now decided to risk using the world passport document.
Bey is simultaneously banned from and detained in South Africa, with his fate now in the hands of South Africa’s legal system. But the real hoopla has been around the world passport itself: most people haven’t ever heard of the mysterious document before this, but it’s not fictitious, spurious or even new. Many global heavyweights like President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and even Julian Assange are said to have been recipients of their own world passport documents.
The passport is meant to aid people who have to travel but do not have official documents like refugees escaping wars in the homes countries.
The documents are dispensed by the World Government of World Citizens in Washington D.C. through its administrative arm, the World Service Authority. The man behind the movement, former WWII bomber pilot and Broadway actor Garry Davis, set up the system in 1951 which, in addition to passports, gives out birth cards and marriage certificates to people. It declares the bearer to be a world citizen and entitled to all the human rights described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.
The passport is meant to aid people who have to travel but do not have official documents like refugees escaping wars in the homes countries, or migrants who never had any official documents but still need to cross borders. Conceptually it’s both noble and parochial and now, 65 years on, the World Service Authority claims a handful of countries actually do accept the world passport as a legal travel document and that even countries that say they do not accept it have stamped it and allowed passage in several instances.
But all this is unconfirmed because, if you follow the logical trail of breadcrumbs it leads back to the World Service Authority which – for all its best intentions and declarations of world peace and such – is still not a country or government, so it can’t just decide if it is allowed to issue passports in exchange for filling out a brief application form and paying the one hundred dollar service fee.
It may open a window of possibility into a very dark, complex and deeply flawed system of documenting migrants and refugees.
This is no small point because, simply put, governments issue passports and regulate border crossing for various reason including national security. Even though the World Service Authority issues the passports in good faith in defence of human rights and the freedom of uninhibited movement there is no assurance at all the actual passports holders will also act in good faith – in fact, in this uncertain day and age, it’s a safe bet many of those world citizen travellers will misbehave… for some it could be a serious deviance (of the terror nature) and for others it may just give them license to ignore whichever other laws they don’t feel are fair. Just look at Mos Def… his stay in South Africa for a good part of the last two years was illegal, but he and his family felt justified in breaking the rules because he had a world passport. Unfortunately, the world just doesn’t work like that.
So, is the world passport just an expensive, useless piece of paper then? In the strictest sense, yes, obviously. But it may also open a window of possibility into the very dark, complex and deeply flawed system of documenting migrants and refugees and provide some clever temporary solutions.
Right now the world has a big problem with processing and documenting refugees and migrants: there’s flood of Syrian refugees in Europe. There’s also the slow seep of undocumented travellers escaping poor conditions in their developing countries and searching out better lives in the developed world. And there’s the constant flow of undocumented peoples constantly travelling and crossing borders across the African continent. Getting all these people the right papers could take tens of years and need muster more manpower than any country actually has available. But for a small fee and and quick application, all these people could potentially get their own world passport. It’s not as a permanent solution, but a much-needed band aid for the time being.
The existing processes make the world passport seem like a pretty good idea after all.
Security issues aside, this process could actually help speed up the bureaucratic red tape currently clogging the system. South Africa itself has so many hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants and asylum seekers entering the country every year that it is completely overburdened and unable to document everyone; many are simply deported, though the means for determining who gets to stay and who has to go can sometimes be as precarious as assessing complexion and accent and inoculation marks. The existing processes make the world passport seem like a pretty good idea after all.
In fact a world passport could potentially help with another bureaucratic mess, namely providing services to undocumented travellers… basic rights like food, water, shelter and medicine. The argument can be made that even though the migrants are not legally allowed into the country, it certainly doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken care of. This may not be a strong legal argument, but it is a pretty strong on the decency front, which is what the world passport also stands to uphold.
There’s perhaps a chance then, if the World Service Authority really wants the governments to start taking them seriously they may be more persuasive if they re-brand and re-pitch the world passport as more of a Temporary-Facilitation-Pending-Due-Diligence-Processing document that will help improve the lives and human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees without actually undermining the laws of each individual country. Iron out the finer points and it seems like a win-win for everybody.
They will need drop that hefty hundred dollar processing fee though… an abominably steep price tag for the world’s neediest citizens? That’s just silly.