Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
When rapper Mos Def was arrested for traveling with the unofficial document, he brought to attention a long-running peace movement.
Among all the passports in the world, the “world passport” would probably rank pretty low on the power scale. Yet, a handful of the most influential people in the U.S. have been issued one, including Oprah Winfrey, Edward Snowden, and President Barack Obama. It’s also held by some of the most powerless people in developing countries.
If you fit into neither of those groups, chances are you hadn’t heard of a world passport until recently, when Yasiin Bey—formerly known as Mos Def—was detained after using one to leave South Africa. (Bey, who was born Dante Smith, announced his retirement earlier this week.) South African officials announced that the American rapper will be tried in court for using a false identity, an unofficial passport, and for helping his family stay in the country illegally.
More than 750,000 people have registered to obtain a World Passport, issued by the World Service Authority (WSA), a small nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. The process is as simple as filling out an application and paying the membership fee of up to $100. The passport itself looks like any other, except it’s printed in seven languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, and Esperanto.
But it’s still unclear which countries actually accept the World Passport for legal travel. The WSA claims on its website that at least 160 countries have stamped the passport on at least one occasion. At the same time, several people have been arrested by immigration officials for using it, including Bey and WSA founder Garry Davis, who’s been thrown in jail dozens of times. The risk of using one today is even bigger as countries ramp up security measures in the face of recent terror attacks across the globe. Just this week, the Obama administration introduced new visa requirements for Europeans with dual citizenship or those who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Sudan in the past five years.
So why have so many registered for a passport that may not be legal? Many of the applications come from refugees or those who aren’t able to obtain official documents from their own countries, according to Foreign Policy. To many, it’s a determined attempt to gain both an identity and the freedom to travel. The organization itself was founded on a key human rights principle declared by the United Nations: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” But because of the passport’s murky legality, some have called it a scam.
To others, though, the World Passport is symbolic. Bey’s representative told Foreign Policy that he wanted to use the alternative passport “because it’s more representative of his personal ideals and philosophies.” The organization was founded not long after Davis renounced his American citizenship in 1948. After losing his brother in World War II and experiencing war himself as a bomber pilot, the late peace activist declared himself simply as a “world citizen.” Davis became well known as the “dean” of the so-called One World movement, according to The New York Times. The movement essentially called for a world without national borders.
Throughout his lifetime, Davis traveled the world, rallying supporters and issuing world passports to more than a thousand war refugees and stateless people. He landed in the public spotlight time and time again—once for holding a rally at the U.N. Assembly in Paris, another time for entering a psychiatric ward after trying to see Queen Elizabeth in person, and again for running against Ronald Reagan for president. Somewhere along the line, the One World movement attracted tens of thousands of supporters, including the likes of Albert Einstein, Albert Camus, and E. B. White.
By the time he died in 2013 at the age of 91, he had left behind a fascinating and somewhat bizarre legacy. Though the legality of the World Passport is often contested, David Gallup, who now heads WSA, told the Burlington Free Press that it brings, at the very least, a sense of belonging to refugees.
“Even if the final outcome is not successful,” he said, “people feel as if they’ve regained their human dignity because we give them hope.”