The U.N. Should Give Refugees Passports

(Bloomberg) —

The United Nations’ recent report that 200,000 Syrians have been displaced as a result of the Turkish-led military operation in the country’s northeast highlighted what many of us already knew: Syria is the worst human-rights catastrophe of the 21st century. In just the past two weeks, we have learned about more executions, beatings and war crimes against civilians committed by Turkish-backed forces.

These atrocities will likely add to the estimated 6.5 million displaced Syrians. Most refugees lack basic identification documents, and even those who manage to escape the country — to Turkey, say — are at risk of being deported back to Syria. In all this back and forth, human lives are being lost as horrific crimes are committed.

The U.N. is uniquely positioned to address the identity component of the statelessness epidemic: It can provide all refugees with laissez-passer passports.

Issued by the U.N.’s New York and Geneva offices, a laissez-passer passport — known in the diplomatic community as a “blue passport” — is a travel document and a form of valid identification that allows the holder visa-free access to many countries. While these passports are usually given to staff members at the World Bank and other international organizations, the privilege should be extended to those who really need it: every man, woman and child fleeing violence.

Having a basic form of ID would allow many refugees to travel to havens and escape human traffickers; they would be able to open bank accounts, apply for visas and find employment. Registering refugees prior to arrival at designated hotspots would improve the efficiency of the administrative processing which currently leaves migrants in a legal limbo for months, even years, before a legal status is determined. Reception centers and U.N.-managed refugee camps would be able to better manage the influx of asylum-seekers, and improve planning for food and aid distribution.

Laissez-passer passports would also make it easier for host countries to determine whether to process refugees without identification as minors. This problem has resulted in immigration officials subjecting child migrants of mature physical appearance to cruel conditions and injustices.

The rollout of a blue-passport program can be done in conjunction with ongoing identification programs, like the ones led by the World Bank’s ID4D initiative, which I helped establish in 2014. Originally envisioned to provide guidance and funding to governments willing to modernize their existing identification systems, the ID4D initiative — now a $1 billion program — can step up and support refugees who have no accountable government to work with.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is already working to assist these communities and alleviate the consequences of forced displacements, but without a broader coordination of all the stakeholders involved, managing the ever-expanding influx of refugees is likely to become chaotic. The international development community, including organizations like the World Bank, should advocate for UNHCR to receive the mandate of issuing blue passports to those arriving at borders and designated hotspots, while ensuring safe-passage corridors and negotiating transit agreements with neighboring countries. Providing identification at borders would allow refugees to travel from war-torn regions to safe countries.

As a former World Bank official, I benefited from a laissez-passer passport when I was on assignment in the Horn of Africa. But the privilege should have really covered thousands of Eritrean refugees seeking life-saving support at the borders of Ethiopia or Djibouti — many of whom still have not escaped all these years later.

Critics may object that de facto identification would imply an open-borders policy, validating fears of miserable migrants invading wealthy Europe. But studies show that orderly and well-managed immigration can actually help host countries increase their wealth, by harnessing the productivity gains from the new workforce. Issuing blue passports to distressed refugees will help migrants better integrate with the host community by following legal pathways.

We can no longer wait for the bureaucratic processes to catch up with the realities of the world we live in. In the absence of proper documentation, millions of refugees will remain displaced with no path forward. Many will turn to criminals for forged documents, putting themselves at further risk of exploitation by traffickers. With an ever-growing number of people in stateless limbo, the refugee crisis will exacerbate, and make finding solutions even more challenging in the future.

The displacement of people is likely to continue, amid protracted violence and climate-induced cataclysms; by 2030, it is estimated that half the world’s extreme poor will find themselves in fragile and conflict-affected countries. For the global community, this crisis will require consensus, coordination, and long-term problem-solving. Laissez-passer passports are not a solution to the larger problem, but they give displaced people some dignity — and the chance to start rebuilding their lives and contributing to their host countries.

Mariana Dahan is the founder and CEO of the World Identity Network, a nonprofit organization advocating for universal identity.

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