Today we understand the international system to be made up of separate, sovereign nation-states. If this system functions correctly, each individual is recognised internationally through their status as a citizen of one particular state. This way of structuring the international order does not always work – there are millions of people in the world who, largely as a result of discrimination or conflicts of nationality laws, are stateless. Nonetheless, this system of sorting individuals into distinct, national categories has been dominant for hundreds of years.

It is, however, a system that conceives of belonging in a very static way.: movement and mobility are seen as disruptive. Take refugee policy as an example. The main ‘solutions’ to displacement are ones that result in the end of the movement of individuals – the three ‘durable solutions’ for refugees that the UNCHR supports are repatriation or the voluntary return to the refugee’s country of origin, resettlement to another country or local integration into a host-country society. Policy makers rarely couple the task of ending forced movement with a parallel commitment ensuring that individuals should always be free to move wherever they wish.

Human beings, however, are not naturally static so in order to keep this system functioning, states have to work hard to control the movement of individuals. State control of mobility is so entrenched that the political geographer Reece Jones has defined modern statehood in terms of control of movement, rather than in the traditional way of defining it in terms of having a monopoly on violence. States of the Global North use an extensive armoury of tools to control global mobility. These include detention, deportation, visa regimes, carrier sanctions, physical borders, biometric data tracking, drone technology, information campaigns and migration deals like the EU-Turkey deal.  

However, these systems of mobility control are applied unequally. Certain individuals are able to move much more easily than others since the tools listed above simply do not affect them in the same way. For instance, the type of passport that an individual hold massively affects their mobility. The online Passport Index explores this idea, ranking every passport in the world in terms of how many countries it allows you to visit visa-free, giving each passport a mobility score. The highest scoring passports include those of the US, Germany, Finland, Luxembourg and Spain while the ‘weakest’ passports are those of Somalia, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. A German passport allows you to visit 100 countries visa-free, while an Iraqi passport only allows you to visit 4 countries visa-free. In this way, global inequality can be seen just as much as an issue of mobility as an issue of wealth.

Further Reading and Resources:

You can find the Passport Index here:

Reece Jones talks about modern states as controllers of mobility: Jones, R. (2016) Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. London: Verso.

John Torpey has written a history of the passport which also claims that over time states have successfully usurped from other entities (like churches) a monopoly over the ‘means of movement’: Torpey, J. (2018). The invention of the passport: surveillance, citizenship and the state. Cambridge University Press.

Ronen Shamir looks at globalisation and argues that globalisation should be thought of as a system based on closure and containment, rather than movement: Shamir, R. (2005) ‘Without Borders? Notes on Globalization as a Mobility Regime’ Sociological Theory 23(2): 197-217.


Published by Discussing Displacement

Discussing Displacement is a blog dedicated to explaining some of the key ideas and arguments within Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

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