“May I see your passport, please?”

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The tens of thousands of people tragically trying to reach Europe from North Africa and Syria has – I’m sure you know – been much in the news in recent days. I am also sure you have by now seen “The Picture” (of the Syrian 3 year old who drowned just off Turkey and washed up on the beach). So this CNN piece from a couple of weeks ago is sadly timely:

Italian photographer Valerio Vincenzo has spent the last eight years photographing the EU’s internal boundaries: that’s 26 countries and 16,500 kilometers of borders that can be freely crossed.

His serene images of abandoned customs houses and quiet beaches and woods raise questions about the authenticity of geographical boundaries and national identities.

His project “Borderline, the Frontiers of Peace” will be exhibited at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in September….

The photos shown are worth seeing. He’s an excellent photographer:

Screen capture of CNN.
Screen capture of CNN.

But he’s NOT an historian. He tells CNN:

“As Stefan Zweig recalled in his ‘World of Yesterday,’ before 1914, there were no passports, visas, permits or authorizations required, and everyone could freely travel around the world.”

CNN doesn’t challenge that statement, which is inaccurate and misleading. And if Zweig actually wrote that, he was wrong, too.

“Passports” have been around, essentially, forever. But before the 1850s, travel was difficult and prohibitively expensive, and most people rarely left the region where they had been born. “Passports” were also far from uniform, and with travel undertaken mostly by the few, and, more importantly, governments sloppy and/ or simply incapable of border enforcement as we today understand it, yes, in a sense, “everyone could freely travel around the world” before 1914…. but just as long as no one stopped you.

Mr. Vincenzo is not the first to have pointed to Europe’s pre-1914 lax attitude towards passports and visas as what needs to be maintained. But pre-1914 was not the norm up to that point. It was an anomaly, a result of the sudden arrival of continental rail travel in the 1860s, which for about 40 years perplexed governments.

With hordes of “new tourists” crossing frontiers on trains daily, the technology of the day simply couldn’t cope with checking IDs. So, for a time, “passports” effectively ceased to exist within continental Europe.

Likewise, the U.S.A. did not demand “passports” to enter and leave until World War I. Similarly Canada. (The Canadian government has a web page that details the history of passports.) Not a surprise: it was very difficult to reach either place pre-air travel and steamship. Sailing ship travel between Old World and New was not an easy or pleasant experience. And it was often fatal. Many a ship was lost en route, with no one ever finding out what had happened to all those aboard.

It was indeed World War I that changed lots. Internal European Borders were now carefully watched. They remained so through World War II.

But standardized passports still did not really exist. What we recognize as our passports today – the compact biometric ones that have our photo, barcode, swipe, and are pretty much the same size for every country – are a product of the jet age. They are a result of an international agreement in the 1980s to standardize them in order for border staff to deal with international air travelers.

Free Stock Photo: Outside of an airport terminal.
Free Stock Photo: Outside of an airport terminal.

In the 1990s, under the European Union’s internal Schengen Agreement, which Mr. Vincenzo refers to elsewhere, yes, internal European border controls were largely scrapped and true free movement – unlike pre-WWI – was introduced. The refugee influx from outside Schengen is now testing that agreement. Britain, for example, is not a party to it, hence the border that is staffed at the Channel Tunnel and the current trouble there with non-EU refugees trying to enter Britain from France.

Europe’s attractiveness to refugees has been attributed to a host of reasons. One likely one is even poorer people have more money than ever before (and can pay smugglers), and access to a great deal of information thanks to the internet and social media. It is far easier now in Damascus or northern Iraq and elsewhere, to see life as lived in Europe or America.

War has also always been a push for people to seek sanctuary elsewhere. But until recently, those people usually went only about as far as they could manage to walk. Air travel, however, now also makes it possible to flee a war by flying to the other side of the world within hours – a change that is unprecedented in human history.

When neighboring peoples are viewed as relatively “benign,” worrying about guarding ground borders is less of an issue. (The United States and Canada famously have the longest “unguarded” border in the world, but even that is now much more carefully watched and monitored.) However, air travel makes us all “potential” neighbors. So until the entire earth is considered “benign,” passports and frontiers will remain with us.

Further thoughts?

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