Booked: A Suitcase Full of Passports

Booked: A Suitcase Full of Passports

An interview with journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian about her new book, The Cosmopolites, and the buying and selling of citizenship.

In Moroni, the capital of the Comoro Islands, 2008 (Svetlana / Flickr)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this special podcast edition, Tim spoke with Atossa Araxia Abrahamian about her book, The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, 2015). Use the player above to listen to a recording of their conversation, or read an edited version below.

Timothy Shenk:
One of the statistics in this book that blew my mind is that, by some estimates, there are upwards of 10 million people who are stateless in the world today.* How did that happen?

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: This statistic is from one of the UN agencies. It’s really hard to get an exact number for obvious reasons. These people are not documented, so governments don’t really have a good grip on how many there are and where they are. It happened in many different ways. Let’s start with the Persian-Gulf countries, because those are the ones I talk about the most in The Cosmopolites. When we talk about the Gulf states we have to remember that they are quite new—they were formed in the past fifty, sixty years at the earliest. These borders were not there before, and many of these countries were British protectorates. When the borders were drawn and these states were formalized as nation-states, a lot of people didn’t sign up to register as citizens early on. Many populations in that region were nomadic, and they thought, “Why should I sign up? This is where I’m from.” But as these states‘ bureaucracies grew, it became more and more important for people to be documented. Many of those people—called the Bidoon in this region, which means “without” in Arabic—have tried to sign up since, but the Gulf States are not always so accommodating. It varies by country and it varies by person. There is a wide perception that the resistance is a form of racism or tribalism, and of these governments being really stingy. When you are an Emirati citizen, you have a house provided for you, you get a stipend, you get cash when you get married. They make Sweden look stingy. But these benefits are paid for with the oil money, and you can hardly call it a social democracy.

Shenk: A social plutocracy?

Abrahamian: Right. And the benefits are largely distributed among a very, very small group of people, who are mostly related to each other. So you can see why it would not be in the state’s interest to include more people in this group. As a result of all these factors—tribalism, racism, regionalism, and money—people remain undocumented and stateless. What this means practically speaking is that they don’t have citizenship papers, which makes it very hard for them to travel outside of the country. They can get permission from the state, but it’s a pain. Try to imagine a situation where all the undocumented people from Latin America in the United States couldn’t be deported, because they had nowhere to go, and no government was claiming them.

Shenk: This question of the 10 million stateless is an issue in contemporary politics. But, as you show, it’s also a recent development within a longer history of what you and many others call “cosmopolitanism.” How do these two fit together?

Abrahamian: Cosmopolitanism is one of these terms that gets kicked around a lot and I guess the original meaning of it comes from ancient Greek, when the stoics would say “I am a citizen of the world, I am a citizen of the universe.”

Shenk: You portray it as a battle between the Cynics and the Stoics.

Abrahamian: The Stoics had this idea of cosmopolitanism as broad and inclusive, and the Cynics thought of it more as being outside the state, and individualistic. To this day, we still have this tension. We have people who believe that global citizenship, which is often used as a stand-in for cosmopolitanism, is something that should include all of us. You have the term global citizenship used in a lot of contexts, which is distinctly not inclusive. Global citizen sounds like a credit card. It sounds like a frequent flyer lounge. It sounds like Davos. As one of the people I cite in the book says, there has been a corporate hijacking of the term.

Shenk: That’s a fantastic phrase.

Abrahamian: I thought so too. And so where does statelessness fit into this? When you’re a citizen of the world, you might not necessarily identify with a particular state. When you identify with more than one country, you can feel a little stateless, because you might not have the same ties and allegiances, or maybe you have lots of them. But at some point, if you do have lots of them, what’s the point of having one at all? Why can’t we just all have all of them? Some of that is personal for me: I have three citizenships and I have always felt a bit stateless, even though I am distinctly not on paper. If anything, as my friend likes to say, I am “over-stated.” And a very small number of people translate their cosmopolitanism into becoming stateless by choice. We have those who choose to live outside the state and opt-out. The most recent example of that are libertarian or anarchist thinkers.

Shenk: The grandson of Milton Friedman—Patri Friedman—is involved with this, right?

Abrahamian: He’s a little different. Patri Friedman is chairman of the board of an organization called the Seasteading Institute, which is a form of opting out.  Seasteading is this concept that one can build man-made islands in international waters to function as new states.

Shenk: Peter Thiel is really behind this too?

Abrahamian: Right. The idea is that the more states we have, the more choice we have between where we want to live and what kind of government we want to live under. Effectively speaking, it also means that maybe you don’t have to pay taxes, if you choose to live in a state with no taxes. We see this playing out in the passport economy. A totally legal way to avoid American taxes or European taxes is to renounce your citizenship and take up citizenship of one of the many countries that now sells it. And this has proved to be quite attractive to the libertarian set. Another libertarian activist, Roger Ver, actually went as far as to buy a Saint Kitt’s citizenship and renounce his American citizenship. He said it was largely for political reasons rather than tax reasons, but we all know the two come hand in hand in these circles.

Shenk: In one of my favorite parts of the book you contrast Roger Ver with Garry Davis, an earlier cosmopolitan activist with a very different political orientation. Can you talk about that comparison?

Abrahamian: Roger Ver represents the Cynic with the big “C” view of cosmopolitanism, the opt-out view. Garry Davis represents a much more inclusive, broad, and universal notion of global citizenship or cosmopolitanism. Garry Davis was formerly American, and a Broadway actor. After fighting as a pilot in the Second World War and losing his brother, he was quite shell-shocked, and he realized all of this really bad stuff that’s going on in Europe is not really people’s faults, it’s these institutions of nations and of citizenship that pit one man against another and cause us to perpetuate such bloodshed. So Davis flew to Paris, walked to the U.S. embassy, and declared that he was going to renounce his U.S. citizenship and become a citizen of the world. People didn’t really get it at the time. Certainly his descriptions of the U.S. Embassy in his books are pretty funny. He said they were just totally baffled. They made him swear on a Bible that he knew exactly what he was doing, and he walked out a free man. The renunciation process is largely the same today. You have to pay a fee now, and you have to fill out some more forms, but essentially you have to be abroad, you have to go to the embassy, you have to declare that you want to do this. The numbers of people renouncing their U.S. citizenship have been climbing, so they have raised the fee, and there is often a wait, which is very interesting too. That’s largely a result of tax law.

Davis went on to make the first DIY world passport with a piece of paper which he laminated. He, as an American, was in France on a visa. As a former-American, stateless person, he was able to get a permit to stay for a certain amount of time but that ran out. And, that was just when the UN came to town. He read somewhere that once the UN establishes itself, it is on sovereign territory. And so, Davis thought, what better place for a world citizen than international territory? So he went and camped out at the UN cafeteria for a while in order to not get kicked out of France. When they tried to kick him out, he would say ”That’s illegal, I don’t have papers to be in France.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what Edward Snowden did in the airport, and that’s what Julian Assange is still doing in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. They must be really sick of him by now. Davis was the precursor to all of these guys pulling these tricks.

Shenk: You discuss Ver and Davis in the same chapter. Ver is this thirty-something, rich, Silicon Valley–affiliated guy living in the Caribbean islands. And Davis is in his nineties when you meet him, and you say there is something a little tragic about him. He’s penniless and he still has his campaign that he believes in but also a sense that the world has passed him by.  It’s clear that while you realize there’s something superficially attractive about Ver’s project, it’s also rotten at the core. But it was harder for me to pin down what you think of Davis.

Abrahamian: Davis was a complicated character. He alienated a lot of his family; he was a difficult man, by all accounts. I met him and he was totally charming and a little kooky, and he was getting on a bit. I think that the Garry Davis project today feels really dated, perhaps because it came out of a time when there was still hope about internationalism. Now we think of the UN and we think, they still haven’t done anything about Syria? It’s frustrating. These institutions are very much part of the system, and the thinking that brought them about just seems a little stale. Davis was no fan of the UN to begin with. He described it as sort of a stillborn institution. He didn’t really have much faith in what it could accomplish. But there was a certain idealism after the wars that Europe and the world would be able to rebuild.

Shenk: A real sense after the Second World War that the world could be transformed.

Abrahamian: That the world could be transformed, and that we can transcend borders and nationality in a way that is meaningful. What we got was globalization. Not that that wasn’t around before, but we got it in a very corporate, financialized way. And that paves the path for people like Ver who find legal loopholes that they can exploit. Now you can buy citizenship in about a half dozen countries. No one is breaking the law. In a lot of ways it is a natural byproduct of global capitalism. Everything is for sale, of course citizenship is for sale. It shouldn’t be as shocking as patriots make it out to be, actually. And, I suppose the system grew out of disillusionment around the internationalism that came out of the Second World War, and also the advances of global finance.

Shenk: One of the things I loved most about Cosmopolites is, it would have been really easy for a study of global citizenship to focus on only the top 0.1%, but the place where you spend the most time is not with Davos men, it’s with this archipelago off the southeast coast of Africa. How do the Comoro Islands fit into this story?

Abrahamian: Everybody knows about Davos men and the global elite, and of course borders exist a lot more for the poor than they do for the rich. The rich figured out how to benefit from this system, and this is why it exists.

Shenk: One of my favorite moments is when you point out, rich people are expats, poor people are migrants, and destitute people are refugees.

Abrahamian: Exactly. There is this whole vocabulary that we use to describe different classes of people who cross borders and who move away from where they’re born. So the Comoro Islands is a pretty new sovereign state, which used to be a French colony. For several years the government sold Comorian citizenship in bulk to officials in Abu Dhabi, who then handed them out to the stateless people in their region in order to document them. The whole passports-for-cash transaction was arranged by a French-Syrian middleman, a bit of a Davos man, named Bashar.

Shenk: He sounded like the Rupert Murdoch of the Middle East.

Abrahamian: Yeah, he’s a big media mogul. So the backstory is that the authorities in the Emirates began to realize they had to document people. The international organizations were getting on their case. These countries like to pass themselves off as being progressive and, maybe not democratic, but at least humane.

Shenk: It’s striking that building these robust safety nets for citizens requires even more exclusion, precisely because the benefits are greater.

Abrahamian: Absolutely, and the other thing that’s worth noting about the Gulf states is that the population with citizenship is a very, very small percentage. Mostly it’s migrant workers, and there are also stateless people. These states have an interest in documenting stateless people to keep tabs on who’s where, to look good, and to be able to control the populations a bit more. The whole system of passports, actually, came out of an impulse to control the movement of people rather than letting them move freely. So there was a desire to document stateless people, but giving them Emirati citizenship was off the table—too expensive, too politically fraught, too complicated. So they used these markets for citizenship to fix the problem. They enlisted the Comoro Islands, which is a very poor country that really needed the money. It wasn’t a hard sell.

Shenk: And Bashar wanted to build luxury resorts there.

Abrahamian: Yeah. The businessmen who arranged this cash for passports exchange thought that the proceeds the country would receive from the Emirates could be used towards development. His companies were very involved in this development, so at least on paper, he definitely stood to benefit from it. But the idea was the Comoros will have money to build roads, tourism infrastructure, to get the trash system going. It was a laudable goal. But what ended up happening is that the passport side of things did go through—it’s not clear how many but between 10 to 100,000 people received citizenship of the Comoro Islands—but no one really knows where all of the money went.

Shenk: And no one is really keeping track.

Abrahamian: No one is keeping track. It’s really astounding. The minister in question actually got busted at the airport with a suitcase full of passports, under Interpol’s nose. The Comoros is a little lawless. I can see why it would be a very attractive environment for businessmen who wanted to build something totally new. Bashar told me his role model is the man who transformed Dubai from a little desert town into this glittering, global capital for finance and commerce.

Shenk: It’s worth noting that all of this is taking place around 2007.

Abrahamian: This began right before the financial crisis. And it unraveled shortly thereafter. So the passport side of the transaction happened. Thousands of people in the United Arab Emirates went from being stateless to being citizens of the Comoro Islands pretty much overnight. Apparently many were pressured into becoming citizens of this country that they had not necessarily heard of—they had their driver’s licenses withheld, or services withheld. It wasn’t entirely voluntary but, I think that the idea of being a citizen of anywhere after not being recognized at all must have been attractive.

As for the Comoro Islands, they did get some cash, but a lot of it is not accounted for. Some say that the middleman went off with several million dollars. The development projects never got built. Anecdotally, there is a road or two and the government was able to pay salaries for a few months. But it didn’t turn out so great for them. They just had a lot of scandal.

Shenk: Meanwhile it seems like one of the most tangible consequences of providing citizenship to the Bidoon, who had previously been excluded, is that it becomes even easier to exclude them.

Abrahamian: Absolutely. So when you go from being stateless to being registered as a foreigner, that means that you can get kicked out of that country pretty much at the government’s will.

Shenk: Do you know if this was part of the project from the beginning? Was this a way of taking care of troublemakers in addition to the other benefits?

Abrahamian: I have no evidence that that was the case. The only known case of deportation as a result of the Comoro Island passport affair was the deportation of an activist, ironically, for stateless people’s rights, named Ahmed Abdul Khaleq. He was stateless himself, and he was part of a group called the UAE Five, who were asking for very mild reforms to the constitution for more political representation. He was an outspoken blogger, and that doesn’t really fly in the Emirates, particularly in the years after the Arab Spring, when all these governments were worried that there would be uprisings.

Abdul Khaleq and his family were all summoned to the interior ministry, which is the local police office, to sign up for Comorian citizenship. Abdul Khaleq signed up for the Comorian passport. He says it was fast-tracked, so he got it in a couple of weeks or months. Overnight he became a citizen of this foreign country he had really no intention of going to. As he was finishing up the process, he was taken to jail. He went through a number of prisons, he was in solitary for a while, he was with prisoners who didn’t speak his language. Eventually the guards come to him and they say, “Ahmed, you are Comorian now, you’ve got to leave. And we are going to give you a choice—you can go to Afghanistan, or Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia.” It was some pretty unsavory places that he really didn’t want to go to, because even for a stateless person, the Emirates have infrastructure, it’s a peaceful country.

Shenk: It’s also his home.

Abrahamian: It’s where his very big extended family lives, it’s where he had a job, it’s where he went to school. So he’s been completely uprooted. Then they gave him some more choices, and said he could go to Thailand. He agreed, and his father got him a visa under the Comorian passport, and he flew there, first time leaving the country, first time on a plane. Ahmed was really lucky. His case was not heavily publicized, but enough that the human rights groups were all involved and they thought we’ve got to make sure that this guy’s OK and we’ve got to make sure this doesn’t happen again. After a couple of months in Bangkok, he’d gotten asylum in Canada, and he flew to Toronto, and then he was relocated in a place called London, Ontario.

Shenk: Somewhat beautifully for a story about cosmopolitanism: London, Ontario.

Abrahamian: I know, there are so many layers. It’s a couple hours from Detroit, for those of you who are not familiar with Canadian geography.

Shenk: And if you’re hungry, he runs a pizza franchise?

Abrahamian: Now I think he runs a pizza franchise. Before that he ran a couple of convenience stores. He’s a good businessman, his English is great. His roommate was a Kurd who lived for twenty years in Russia. So they had a funny thing going where Ahmed was saying, “I think that there should be not an ISIS caliphate, but a broader Muslim world, where Muslim brothers can travel freely.” And the Kurd was saying, “Well, I think Kurdistan should be its own country.” So they were having these interesting conversations about nationalism and sovereignty and citizenship when I went to visit them last October. Ahmed is doing well, but he’s really sad. He had to leave behind everything he knew. Even today he says, I wouldn’t do this again, I would just shut up, I wouldn’t protest. So the best possible outcome is still nonetheless a very sad one.

Shenk: We have talked about people who have had citizenship imposed on them, like the Bidoon, we’ve talked about people who have renounced their citizenship, like Garry Davis. The third element of the book is people who are acquiring multiple citizenships through the passport industry. What’s the driving force behind what is now a quite lucrative enterprise in its own right, this production of multiple passports?

Abrahamian: There are many driving forces behind this. Number one is mobility. If you have a passport from a country like Russia or China or much of the Middle East, you’ve got to get visas if you want to go to Europe or the United States or Canada, a lot of other countries. And it’s a pain. If you can afford to not deal with it, why wouldn’t you?

Shenk: And one of the cheaper ones is about $250,000?

Abrahamian: If you invest $400,000 in Saint Kitts, if you buy a house, you can also get a passport thrown in. So it’s a pretty good deal. Malta and Cyprus are a little pricier.

Shenk: That totally beats Manhattan real estate.

Abrahamian: I know. And the really funny thing is in Malta, you actually get free university and child care and health care. Though I don’t think any of the people are going there to try to get free college.

Shenk:  If you can afford it, you don’t need the bonuses.

Abrahamian: But if you do the math, it costs $1.5 million to become Maltese. And then if you have kids, you could save a lot of money on college. So mobility is a big factor. Wealth planning, tax planning, this is another important aspect of the industry. It’s easier to hide your money if you have another citizenship. Political risk is an often overlooked factor for people acquiring another citizenship. In volatile countries—Russia, China, countries in the Middle East—powerful, wealthy people who don’t necessarily trust the government constantly worry, is my family going to be safe? If things don’t go well in the next elections, maybe I’m going to want to move. Those are the three main driving forces.

You also have people now who collect citizenships for sport. It’s not a big group—pretty niche. And people can also become citizens of countries because they actually really like being in the country. It’s quite hard to become a citizen of another country, but accumulating citizenships is a way of giving yourself options. It’s very common for Israelis to try to obtain German citizenships through the laws that allow Jews to obtain citizenship as a result of their grandparents being kicked out. I know a lot of people who are trying to dig up some Italian grandparents so that they can get an EU work permit, just so they have an option. What it says about their emotional attachment and how much meaning it has to them personally to be a citizen of Italy on top of the United States, that remains to be seen. I think that after everything we’ve discussed, we can agree that the notion of citizenship as something inherently meaningful and emotionally charged is being challenged, if not slowly unraveling.

Shenk: This gets to the politics of the book in a really fascinating way. You quote one of the lawyers who is an essential element of this passport industrial complex describing the President of St. Vincent as, essentially, an old leftist who wants to hold on to an antiquarian notion of citizenship and doesn’t realize that this is the future. You obviously have a skeptical attitude towards the lawyer’s vision, but you don’t seem terribly nostalgic for a lost golden age of citizenship where people believed in a community that autobiographically, you say, you never really felt.

Abrahamian: Yeah, I have no way of knowing what it was like. And I think this idea that there was once a world where everyone felt so connected to their state is overblown. Sure, there was more of a welfare state, there were more social structures, there was more redistribution at some points in history.

Shenk: And those were encased within national boundaries, which was a precondition for building a strong safety net.

Abrahamian: Exactly. I think the thing to be wary of is this idea of community and this idea of redistribution. If you don’t feel connected to any community, why would you pay taxes? If you don’t feel like you owe anyone anything, what would compel you to contribute anything to the greater good, whether that’s the greater good of the world or the greater good of your neighborhood or the greater good of your country? I think that is one of the problems with having a global wealth tax. How can you have people identify and care enough about strangers to sign up for something like that? Personally, I think it would be great if we found a way to make it happen, but there are not just logistical challenges but emotional ones. How are we going to get to that point? That’s above my paygrade.

Shenk: What do you see when you look ahead? Just more unraveling of older notions of citizenship, and the growth of market driven, globalization-friendly replacements?

Abrahamian: I think it’s going to keep happening. I think that the market for passports and citizenship is going to keep growing, if and only if they keep it clean. The industry is very aware of this and, as sketchy as it sounds to buy and sell citizenship, there are due-diligence procedures, there are background checks, and there are many people in the industry who have an interest in keeping it as professional and above board as possible. And that’s why countries actually pass laws to allow for the sale of citizenship. Does it make it any less problematic ethically or politically? No, it’s a really complicated topic. How can you sell belonging? Maybe you’re not selling belonging, maybe you’re just selling convenience.

I think there’s always room for people to come up with new ideas, like a new world passport. One idea that I think is a very good one is to create humanitarian visas for migrants and refugees. That wouldn’t solve the crisis. It would definitely not solve the problem of old borders and of war, but it would prevent people from taking very dangerous journeys without the appropriate documentation.

When the Internet blew up and became something everybody could use, there were many idealistic people who thought it would finally allow us to break through borders and have no boundaries and be part of this global community. I think that it has achieved that in some ways, but I don’t think that we have really come up with a better version of citizenship as a result of the Internet. But maybe we just have to wait; it’s still our early phase.

* Edited to reflect the correct number.