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Our Passport That Opens Many Doors in These Times

With the Covid-19 spread continuing, this is as good a time as any to be aware of the multifaceted nuances that the passport presents.

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Wrrting from Montreal

It is no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has devalued the passport and robbed it of its utility, what with dwindling overseas travel by air, sea and surface. Granted, the passport is an identity document, but it is used mostly for travel purposes to foreign lands, as for travel within the country there are several other identity documents that can be used. Another reason is that passport offices around the world have been severely short staffed, creating a backlog. For instance, The British Home Office is reported to have said that there is a backlog of 400,000 passports waiting to be issued and that The Passport Office is advising that only people going away before September or those travelling on compassionate grounds should apply now for a passport.


To most of us our passport is literally the “passport” to foreign lands which enables us to travel overseas, visit lands and experience a broader spectrum of life. Of course, a passport is not enough for this purpose. There must be a visa issued by the country we travel to so that we can be accepted to enter that country and stay for a determined period of time. Usually, the visa is stamped on the passport by the receiving country unless a document of special authorization is issued which is a rarity and done only in exceptional circumstances.

Unbeknownst to many, the humble passport could serve many purposes. It could be stolen, altered, bought (by way of obtaining citizenship) and used for disingenuous purposes. Courts in some jurisdictions order the impounding of passports to prevent suspects on bail awaiting trial from escaping to a foreign country.

The economist of 27 June 2020 reports: “More and more rich Africans are buying second passports or foreign residency rights. They do so because their own passports open few doors …the wealthy country-shopper has a range of options. A passport from Antigua and Barbuda requires a “contribution” of $100,000 to the government’s National Development Fund or a property investment of $200,000 that can be sold off in five years… South Africans and Kenyans seem to favour residency in sunny Portugal. The cheapest option is to buy an old rural villa for as little as €280,000 ($315,000). For those hankering after European Union citizenship, a “donation” of €650,000 to the government of Malta, topped up by half a million euros in investment, should ensure that a sleek burgundy passport arrives in the post. The cash that countries earn from these schemes adds up. In Dominica annual inflows from foreigners buying citizenship equal 10% of GDP.”

This is as good a time as any to clarify a few misconceptions and perceived misunderstandings that may infest our minds with regard to this important document. Firstly, some may be of the view that the passport belongs to the holder and therefore ownership of the property and possession thereof vests solely with the holder – the person to whom the passport is issued. The passport is the property of the country which issues it. It is the only travel document which indicates the citizenship of the holder (country of issuance) and carries an invocation by the head of the country to the country of arrival to permit entry to the passport holder on the basis of the holder’s citizenship. Secondly, in the diplomatic world in particular, the passport is symbolic of the country that issues it and therefore the document may have both subjective and objective connotations. A country may ban passport holders of a particular country as a reprisal against that country. It may even ban particular passport holders on a personal and subjective basis.

Arguably, the best kept secret could be that, despite travel being undertaken by people on road, by sea and by air who are all required to present their passports on entry, it is aviation that is responsible for the development of global technical specifications for passports and visas. The passport was developed under the umbrella of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). One might well inquire as to what civil aviation has to do with immigration and of what business would it be of ICAO to develop specifications for the passport. The question was asked of the ICAO Secretariat by the Council of ICAO when the author was present in the Council during his tenure at ICAO: “”Why is ICAO dabbling in technical specifications of passports which does not relate directly to air transport” and the response of the ICAO Secretariat was: “ because no one else is doing it”. This was, and remains a fact.

ICAO leads the world with a sustained process in the development of travel documents for every mode of transport requiring that five independent elements should form a coherent and cohesive framework; foundational documents, tools and processes required to ensure authentic evidence of identity; the design and manufacture of standardized Machine Readable Travel Documents (MRTDs), especially ePassports, that comply with ICAO specifications defined in Doc 9303, Machine Readable Travel Documents; processes and protocols for document issuance by appropriate authorities to authorized holders, and controls to combat theft, tampering and loss; inspection systems and tools for the efficient and secure reading and verification of MRTDs at borders, including use of the ICAO Public Key Directory (PKD); and interoperable applications that provide for timely, secure and reliable linkage of MRTDs and their holders to available and relevant data in the course of inspection operations. Of these, arguably the most important is the last element which calls for interoperable applications.

ICAO has set up the PKD to verify, validate and authenticate biometrically enhanced Machine Readable Passports (MRPs) also known as ePassports, thereby strengthening their security and the integrity of border controls.

In this context the ICAO Traveller Identification Programme (ICAO TRIP) Strategy provides the global framework for achieving the maximum benefits of travel documents and border controls by bringing together the elements of the traveller identification management. The limitation of the number of possible civil status for a person depends on the documentation used to establish identity, confirm citizenship or nationality and assess entitlement of the passport applicant (i.e. breeder documentation). Furthermore, the passport being the main official travel document that denotes a person’s identity and citizenship and is intended to inform the State of transit or destination that the bearer can return to the State which issued the passport, international confidence in the integrity of the passport is essential to the functioning of the international travel system. However, the use of stolen blank passports, by those attempting to enter a country under a false identity, is increasing worldwide, and the security of traveller identification and border controls depends on a robust identification management system and the integrity of the travel document issuance process.

Criminal focus worldwide has been increasingly shifting from travel document fraud to identity fraud. Therefore countries, through their travel document and border control management, should uniquely identify individuals to maximize facilitation and aviation security benefits, including preventing acts of unlawful interference and other threats to civil aviation. Countries should also implement rigorous processes and tools to safeguard the integrity and security of border documentation by notably applying evidence of identity principles such as ensuring that identity exists.

The verification against two different data sources is critical as well as linking the applicant to identity. This is unique to the system through the provision of confidence of the applicant’s “social footprint’’ - meaning how a person interacts with society’s stakeholders during the life cycle and the check against agency record or by associating the record with one or more biometrics. Countries should also intensify their efforts in developing and implementing a robust identification management system and safeguard the security and integrity of the travel document issuance process; intensify their efforts in establishing and implementing a solid verification system of the integrity of electronic passports, in particular by reading their electronic signatures and verifying their validity.

Finally, in the current digital age it is very important to consider the digital linkage to passenger information where countries should implement technological solutions aimed at enhancing security and facilitation of border controls while improving clearance procedures, such as the joint use of Automated Border Control (ABC) gates and the Public Key Directory when checking ePassports.

With the Covid-19 spread continuing, this is as good a time as any to be aware of the multifaceted nuances that the passport presents.

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