The Politics of Prejudice: How Passports Rubber-Stamp Our Indifference to Refugees

The history of passports was already interesting, but with the plights of Syrian refugees in the news and the debate over immigration in the US, those official papers take on even more importance. Passports and visas are official permission for people to move from one place on earth to another, which is a strange custom when you look at it from an extraterrestrial’s point of view. The process for issuing those papers has never been totally egalitarian. Neil Kaplan has collected over 2,000 passports and runs the website Our Passports. He talks about the history of travel documents and their political ups and downs. During peacetime, they serve as a means of control for a nation’s borders, letting in desirables and excluding others, groups that change over time. During wartime, governments themselves would bypass passport and immigration laws for their own ends.

How did specific diplomats use their position to save lives during periods of conflict?

Kaplan: Toward the end of the ’30s and into the beginning of World War II, most countries were very strict with their visa-issuing. I think these regulations were implemented specifically to prevent Jews from arriving in those countries. Sometime in October 1941, the Germans decided not to permit any Jews to leave their territory. They were implementing the Final Solution, so they weren’t allowing Jews to escape.

But at the time, several diplomats had something in them most people don’t, and decided to do the right, honorable thing—not to follow the rules and orders given by their foreign ministry. Many people who are under pressure or in danger decide not to help others, or freeze up because they’re not accustomed to this type of situation. Yet these diplomats understood that people’s lives were involved, and because of their integrity, they decided to act.

Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese vice-consul stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1939 to supervise the German and Russian forces as part of the Axis powers, and report back to Tokyo. Sugihara was given a “no” from the foreign ministry in Tokyo, but he still decided to help. The Soviets would not allow Lithuanians to cross into Siberia without a final destination, so Sugihara worked together with the Dutch consul in Lithuania to issue a ridiculous visa for travel to Curaçao, which was a small Dutch colony in the Caribbean. Once that was inside the passport, it was easy for Sugihara to give them a transit visa to Japan, where they could catch the boat to Curaçao, though the majority stayed in Japan.

There are more passport, visa, and travel stories that Kaplan tells us in an article at Collectors Weekly. 

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