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As I checked in for my flight from Santiago to Sydney at the end of March this year, the passengers were split into groups.

The terminal was eerily quiet. Someone knocked over their luggage and everybody jumped as it clattered loudly on the tiled floor. A week earlier, all the states and territories of Australia had declared a public health state of emergency due to the spread of COVID-19.

The groups were delineated by those who were Australian passport holders and those who were not. The New Zealanders threw us looks of dismayed betrayal as they were shepherded in with the others, holding their little black books with the sparkling silver fern on the front.

The flight attendant said they had to ‘call Australia’ and check that each individual international traveller was allowed to get on the flight. It was 4am in Sydney; I wondered who had the job of picking up the phone.

After I was checked in, I tucked my own little book—this one navy blue with a gold coat of arms—safely under my shirt. The Australian embassy in Chile was temporarily closed, staff flown home. Borders around the world were slamming shut. My passport had never felt so important to me.


Travel documents have existed in various forms throughout history, usually as letters of safe conduct between kingdoms. But for the most part, migration was largely unrestricted. It was World War I that brought about the worldwide, obligatory passport system we have now.

France, Italy and Germany all made passports mandatory for people entering and departing their countries in 1914, with the newly federated Australia not far behind. The issuing of passports was taken out of state hands, and placed into those of the Australian federal government, and it became a requirement for passports to include a photo. Although the system was at first brought in to identify possible enemies entering the country, according to Every Assistance and Protection: A History of the Australian Passport, by Jane Doulman and David Lee, the government’s focus quickly shifted from monitoring those who were coming into the country, to those who were trying to get out.

‘Recognition of the realities of this horrific world war saw the surveillance function of the new passport regime dovetail neatly with the government’s need to control and monitor its most vital wartime asset: manpower,’ they write. ‘In November 1915, passports became compulsory for all males of military age.’

Travel documents have existed in various forms throughout history, usually as letters of safe conduct between kingdoms. But for the most part, migration was largely unrestricted.

Following the war, there was immediate global talk of abolishing passports altogether, and allowing free travel and trade to restart. The great, upheaving ripples of the war were just starting to settle, and the powerful countries of the world needed to talk about the issue of freedom of movement. But with barely enough time to draw breath, something else came along to halt the free flow of people: the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were returning to their home countries, refugees were fleeing their ravaged homes, and this great mass of people was spreading illness. In 1918, delegates at an emergency medical conference in Sydney recommended refusing entry to anyone who held a passport from an at-risk country.

‘The pandemic reinforced the linkage between health and national identity,’ write Doulman and Lee, ‘becoming a popular metaphor for the possible detrimental effect of foreign influences on Australians’ perception of their unspoiled and vulnerable way of life.’

By the time the world recovered from these waves of adjacent misery, the passport system was entrenched.

It has only been 100 years since the very first Passport Conference, which was held in Paris in October 1920 by the League of Nations. The intended aim of the conference was the ‘total abolition’ of the passport system. But out of the conference came a resolution that ‘the legitimate concern of every Government for the safeguarding of its security and rights’ prohibited that desire. Although the League of Nations expressed its hopes that a looser passport system would be seen ‘in the near future’, they came out of the conference with the establishment of a uniform type of ‘ordinary’ passport, identical for all countries. As of July 1921, these passports superseded all others.


At their best, passports can be symbols of freedom, independence, the ability to move about the world as yourself.

In 1988, Indigenous activists travelled from Australia to Libya on Aboriginal Passports, marking the very first time a foreign country had accepted the documents. They have been issued since the 80s by the Aboriginal Provisional Government independence group as ‘part of its policy of acting sovereignty’, and as a resistance to the colonial concept of ‘Australian citizenship’ itself. While not officially accepted by the Australian government, the passports have since been accepted in Switzerland and Norway, and by the Native American Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which similarly issues its own passports. Nganyaywana man Callum Clayton-Dixon made headlines in 2015 when he successfully travelled between Australia and the Solomon Islands on an Aboriginal Passport. ‘I just kept on insisting I’m an Aboriginal person returning to my country on my Aboriginal passport, and this is the travel document I’m choosing to use,’ he told SBS.

At their best, passports can be symbols of freedom, independence, the ability to move about the world as yourself.

When the Republic of South Sudan came into existence in 2011, making it the newest country in the world, the government proudly issued new passports to its citizens. In a ceremony marking their release, President Salva Kiir Mayardit said: ‘During the time of the struggle when we were at war, there were friendly countries that gave us their passports that we used for travelling… And today we have our own documents: these are the first documents that we are going to own as a new country.’

Even pro-Brexit activists have been giddily pronouncing their excitement at the imminent reintroduction of the old book once the country leaves the European Union.

‘By returning to the iconic blue and gold design, the British passport will once again be entwined with our national identity and I cannot wait to travel on one,’ said UK Home Secretary Priti Patel. (Not everyone, of course, is so thrilled about the travel restrictions UK passport holders will face in Europe come 2021, and are frantically trying to find ways to keep their burgundy book.)

But not all passports are created equal. Since 2006, the Henley Passport Index has ranked the power of different passports; based on how many countries a citizen can enter without requiring a visa. The biases run deep like dirt.

Japan sits happily at number one—people holding a Japanese passport can enter 191 countries without a visa. Australia is ninth—thanks to those pieces of paper, some stitching and a microchip, I can walk right into 183 countries, from Singapore to Serbia.

For citizens of Afghanistan, it’s a very different story. Ranking stone cold last on the index, the Afghani passport only allows its holders visa-free entrance to 26 countries, most of them in Africa. Sitting right down there with Afghanistan are Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia.

‘A passport is a kind of shield: when you’re a citizen of a wealthy democracy,’ says Atossa Araxia Abrahamian in her 2015 book The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. And for refugees who are unable to secure travel documents from the governments they are fleeing—or for the estimated 12 million people who are stateless right now—passports are a symbol for everything they cannot access. Enormous swathes of the world become off limits. Almost like they don’t exist.

In 2012, Indigenous elder Robbie Thorpe issued two very special Aboriginal Passports. They were taken to the Villawood Detention Centre and presented to two Tamil men who had being indefinitely detained and denied permanent visas in Australia on ASIO ‘security’ grounds.

‘We are issuing passports to these men because its what any reasonable, humane society would do,’ said Mr Thorpe. ‘We expect these men to be responsive to Traditional Law, and respect the Indigenous customs of this land. If they do this, which we expect that they will, then they will be welcome to live amongst us.’


Passports have always seemed to hold an exciting magic for me. When I was a kid, I eagerly counted the multitude of stamps in my parent’s old passports. I looked at the mug shots from their twenties and thought how young they looked, how adventurous. I couldn’t wait to get my own little blue book that would open up the world.

And I did, when I was 14 years old, and the world did indeed open up to me—because I’m lucky, because I’m privileged, because I’m from a wealthy country. And while I treasured this document, and the colourful ink that shows the places I have been, I didn’t really give my passport all that much thought. The closest I ever come to fear is periodically realising that I don’t quite know where it is, embarking on a frenzied rummage, finding it, sighing with relief, and then putting it back in my drawer.

While I treasured this document, and the colourful ink that shows the places I have been, I didn’t really give my passport all that much thought.

But as the groups of people in Santiago Airport were methodically split up based on which coloured book they were holding, I pressed my precious passport close to my hard-thudding heart. I had done some panicked reading, soothing myself with the statement in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that states: ‘No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his/her own country.’ The website of the Australian Attorney General itself says ‘that there are few, if any, circumstances in which deprivation of the right to enter a person’s own country could be considered reasonable’. Although the government has recently been slowing the process by capping the number of citizens able to return at one time, with an Australian passport in hand, I would be able to get home to safety.

Associate Professor Speranta Dumitru wrote in The Conversation about how world leaders were determined to abolish the passport system after World War I, to open up the world again to free movement and trade. But once the system was in place, it was difficult to dismantle. Now, the idea of a passport-free world seems impossible.

‘It takes less than a century, it seems, to see the absence of freedom as a natural condition,’ writes Dumitru. ‘Fences are ​easier to build than to dismantle.’

Like the World Wars and like the Spanish Flu, COVID-19 will inevitably change the way we think about moving around the world. We are yet to see exactly how the heaving of this global pandemic will change the way we look at borders—how it will build barriers, and how it will break them.

For now, I will tuck my little blue book safely in my bedroom drawer, and this time I will not forget where it is. I will keep it close, hoping it will still let me stride back out into the world, as soon as I get the chance.