The short synopsis about the famous movie called Casablanca released in 1943 and directed by Michael Curtiz says: by A cynical American expatriate struggles to decide whether or not he should help his former lover and her fugitive husband escape French Morocco.
The story of Rick Blaine, a cynical world-weary ex-patriate who runs a nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco during the early stages of WWII. Despite the pressure he constantly receives from the local authorities, Rick’s cafe has become a kind of haven for refugees seeking to obtain illicit letters that will help them escape to America. But when Ilsa, a former lover of Rick’s, and her husband, show up to his cafe one day, Rick faces a tough challenge which will bring up unforeseen complications, heartbreak and ultimately an excruciating decision to make.
Former lovers Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) meet in the Moroccan port city (where Ilsa and her husband Victor Laszlo are). We remember this movie as a remarkable love story in wartime. The couple in love eventually give up their love to help Laszlo, a member of the Czech resistance movement (to confront the Nazis).
The whole plot (including the cause of Ilsa and Rick’s reunion) is based on something more prosaic: Ilsa and Laszlo’s attempts to come up with documents that will allow them to travel. These documents do not look impressive – two folded sheets of official’s signature paper. In film and real life, these papers can mean the difference between life and death.
In the first half of the 20th century (especially during the wars) many travelers needed a visa to leave the country. During World War II, Morocco, (still a French protectorate during the course of the movie) became a stop on the refugee route to leave occupied Europe. As the narrator’s voice explains in the film, the migrants traveled “from Paris to Marseille through the Mediterranean to Oran. They then went by train, car or on foot across the African massif to Casablanca. ” Upon arrival in Casablanca, they would bribe an official to buy paper on the black market. Or they would otherwise come up with documents that would allow them to leave the country. Then they would wait for the first ship or plane to reach freedom.
“Some people used to get exit visas with money, influence or luck. They would travel to Lisbon, and thence to the New World, “adds the narrator in one of the scenes at the beginning of the film. “And the rest are waiting in Casablanca … and waiting … and waiting … and waiting.”
Rick’s Coffee is where these characters come together, lament and kill time: a united nation of cocktails and gambling.
Casablanca was shot over 76 years ago. If we interpret it as a migration story, it reminds us that personal documents do not serve to give us freedom, but to abolish freedom.
The guarantor of the right to move is not an individual but a state. Access to this right is determined primarily by class division. Those who are poor, undesirable or unable to pay the necessary visas, travel expenses and basic documents remain trapped. Rich people travel the way they want and when they want.
In 2016, a record number of 82,000 millionaires moved (from one country to another) thanks to immigration measures favoring the ultra-rich. These measures boil down to the sale of citizenship and residence permits.
That same year, populist politicians around the world (from Austria to the Philippines) received a huge number of votes over their promise to prevent undesirables from coming.
Passports are not invented to allow us to travel freely, but to keep us where we are. And they keep us in control. They represent the boundaries that states draw around themselves and the people. So it is in times of war and peace.
Most states no longer require the famous exit visas mentioned in Casablanca.
As the barriers to exit disappear, so do the barriers to entry. What’s the point of leaving if you have nowhere to go.
The passport was a symbol of belonging to a sovereign nation-state. For those happier, it was a way to travel from that country. Now we are not far from when lines will be drawn around our bodies.
As printed documents and analog technologies are replaced by detailed scanning methods (which identify us by pupil patterns, facial shapes and maps of our veins and arteries) we will not be what our documents say; We will become our documents.
In the West, the passport paradox is easily distracted. The documents of the North American and European countries allow citizens a temporary visa-free entry to any country in the world. It should come as no surprise that when it comes to selling cars, credit cards and mobile phone contracts, the word “passport” is used as a substitute for “freedom.”
A German citizen without a visa can visit 177 countries. A U.S. citizen without a visa can visit 173 countries. A visa-free Afghan citizen can only visit 24 countries.
For everyone who enjoys relatively high mobility, the opposite situation – that without a passport there is no way out – only comes to mind when the stakes are relatively low, when we forget or lose the passport.
This situation is also often addressed in movies: the highlight of the plot of the movie Sex and the City 2 comes after Carry Bradshaw leaves his passport at a shoe store in Abu Dhabi. Then she runs to the bazaar with her friends to retrieve it. After scandalizing a bunch of angry Arab men, she is rescued by emirate housewives who wear haute couture under traditional robes.
For Carry Bradshwa, the stakes are touchingly trivial: he will have to delay his flight, maybe fly a lower class or spend another day dressed in conservative clothes. The situation of the rest of the world is closer to that of Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszlo – only without their wealth and connections. Take, for example, the Rohigans of Myanmar, a minority nation without a state, or the millions of Syrians in whose country the brutal civil war is still raging. They have no documents. If they have them, they are not appropriate. As they cannot obtain the documents they need to get to where they left safely, they resort to strenuous and dangerous journeys across land and sea. If they do not manage to obtain a passport, visa or document guaranteeing a safe passage, they will have a long wait, possible arrest, and often death.
The introduction and standardization of travel documents internationally is the result of geopolitics and technology. Until ways to move quickly by land and sea were discovered, it was easier to keep people off walls, trenches, fences, or by force. As traffic accelerated, countries and empires became more interconnected by trade and war, controls on human movement became more rigorous. It is difficult to know who exactly was the first passport holder or where and when this document was issued.
John Thorpi (author of The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State (2000)) argues that the first controls on personal documents were internal. That they took place within the borders of states, provinces or empires. In Europe and Russia, serfs in feudal times were attached to the estates of their masters; in Prussia, in the 16th century, a police order was issued prohibiting “vagrants” from obtaining “passes” with which they could move to other cities.
The possibility of movement was, as it is today, primarily related to socio-economic status. There was an effort to keep the top workers (and their taxes) at home. Flat-footed aristocrats moved much easier than the poor recruited to local armies.
The state institutionalization of passports was strengthened around the time of the French Revolution. Thorpi notes that the revolutionaries vehemently opposed the decision of Louis XVI, which forbade his subjects to leave France without proper documents.
After the revolution, they argued over whether free people needed passports at all. Some agreed with the measure, arguing that it is important for security and social cohesion. Others insisted that “the revolution that began with the destruction of passports should guarantee adequate freedom of travel in times of crisis”.
Those who advocated for documents won. Over the next century, empires rose and fell, armies waged wars. Recruitment forced young men to sign up for the war, leaving behind a paper trail. Guards initially controlled borders and border crossings primarily to prevent spies and foreign enemies from entering during conflict periods;
Immigration policies like the US Immigration Act of 1924 defined migration based on country of origin.
On the eve of World War I, transnational bureaucratic structures, such as the League of Nations (later the United Nations), have stalled the international regime of travel documents, visas and permits. The use of these documents developed in parallel with the rise of the nation-state and the establishment of physical land borders and border controls that we consider natural today.
In Thorpey’s words, “Modern states have often denied their citizens the right to travel abroad, and the ability of states to deny unimpeded travel is exercised through state control of issuing passports and related documents, which have become an inevitable condition for entry into many countries.”
As wars were drawn and national boundaries redrawn and populations displaced, erased and exchanged, documents determined the place of the person in the world.
The newly created countries – such as Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia – began printing their own passports; it was a nation-building exercise, diplomatic necessity and proof of civic affiliation. Citizens of the former Yugoslavia today have nostalgia for their old red passports, with which you (in the words of a former hitchhiker) “could travel where you want”.
Not all of them fit the new maps equally elegantly: those without citizenship and papers, refugees and displaced persons, remained on the windmill.
A young Bulgarian woman appears in Casablanca, ready to offer sex in exchange for a visa; writer Vladimir Nabokov, had to bribe a “real rat in an office” to get a exit visa for himself and his wife. After being stripped of his Russian citizenship, he traveled with a refugee passport issued to him by the United Nations. Nabokov hated him. Later in his memoirs, Speak, Memory described the passport as an “extremely inferior document, unhealthy green in color”. Many, however, were not so fortunate.
Technology has contributed to the physical determination of the borders of nation states by fences, walls and border crossings. Technology designs personal documents that people carry with them to show the world where they belong. Handwritten sheets of paper, with a brief physical description, evolved in the early 20th century, including photographs, fingerprints, and information on height, hair color, and eyes. In the United Kingdom, whole families used to pose together for passport photography; hats, mounts, and sunglasses were all embraced in photographs until the 1920s. In the 1960s, the United States forbade people to smile in photos; In the ’70s black and white photographs were replaced with those of color. Counterfeits and services have become harder to handle. One is to buy a signed paper from corrupt – or well-intentioned? – an officer who is ready to assist you. Something completely different is to pretend to be another person.
There are stories circulating that the passports are numbered. Airlines officials and government officials predict that in 2022 international travel will be a “smooth paperless process”. We will not need any IDs, no bording bands. Scanning the pupils and fingerprints will check everything you need. The rise of biometric technologies in the face of the war on terror and the return of ethnic nationalism has led to the rise of more and more walls – physical, legal and rhetorical – around the world. Physical walls play a symbolic role in the populist imagination. They separate “native people” from “others.” Increased border controls, surveillance and monitoring technology create equally concrete boundaries that politicians can deploy. It is harder to see the boundaries that are drawn around people that will potentially follow them throughout their lives.
The more information that our fingerprints or pupil shots will relate to (where we live, what we deal with, who our parents are, whether we use social assistance, whether we have committed a crime) – the more grounds for a species algorithmic segregation.
Thanks to durable digital technologies like blockchain, files will become indelible. Our histories will haunt us for decades after possible arrest, bankruptcy, or deportation. In the book Automating inequality: How high-tech tools profiles, shelves, and punish the poor (2018) political scientist Virginia Eubenks writes about the catastrophic consequences of the digitization of bureaucracy involved in social assistance in the United States. The technologies she used “were not neutral”. Instead, Eubenks argues, “these technologies are shaped by a national fear of economic insecurity and hatred of the poor; they then shape the policies and experiences of poverty themselves. ”
The “invasive electronic control” of the poor is about to become a status quo for all Americans, Eubenks notes. Obviously, the first target of biometric monitoring will be those listed as “extreme control”: foreigners, refugees and immigrants.
In January 2017, the first US entry ban issued by the current administration was announced. This ban separated families, detained people who have long been domiciled in the US, and caused chaos at airport terminals around the world. It remains unclear whether the restrictions imposed on travelers from 9 Muslim countries will apply to those among them who hold dual citizenship or permanent residency in the United States.
There is no doubt that members of this group represent a privileged minority. They are not the first to strike a new ban. Their position raised the essential question: what determines where we are from? Is it the color of our passport or the color of our skin? Where were we born or where did we live the longest? In less abstract terms: Will an Swede of Iranian descent, or a Frenchman of Somali descent, be forever Iranian or Somali in the eyes of US immigration control agencies?
There are precedents for this ban: In 2015, during the Obama administration, Congress passed a law requiring anyone who had anything to do with a country considered a “security risk” (such as Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan) to enter additional entry visas. USA, no matter who it is or where it lives. This law still applies. Those with dual citizenship are still exempt. The whole problem hinted at a future where it would become impossible to leave the borders in which we were born.
Visas or entry permits are currently issued on the basis of a passport stamp, previous entry details and city of birth, which are indicated in some (but not all) personal documents. With larger databases and more advanced technologies, the space for discretionary decision-making will be smaller. Rejections will become automatic.
This has legal, political and personal consequences. A collection of biographical, biometric, family and genetic information creates digital legacies that are difficult to get rid of. In China, a country that still requires documents for inland travel, pupil scanners, motion scanners and similar malicious technologies are constantly tracking members of the Muslim Uighur minority. Chinese citizens’ applications for visas, mortgages, schools and employment are assessed on the basis of their so-called social credit.
When today’s refugees follow the refugee route from Casablanca, now in the opposite direction, traveling from Africa through the Mediterranean to Europe, the authorities collect their biometric data and apply the Dublin Protocol, according to which the first country of entry is the place where refugees must seek asylum. It’s getting harder and harder to disappear and start over. So much for mobility, physical and economic or social.
Drawing boundaries around people can provide a more orderly and more predictable world. Despite the promised “smoothness” of the travel experience, this world will not necessarily be more humane. It is quite possible that the passports will disappear over the next decade. What will replace them will be much more invasive: the digital shadow of our bodies, families, and pasts that will follow us everywhere we go.
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, The New York Review of Books, 21.05.2018.