How much might global economic output rise if anyone could work anywhere? Some economists have calculated it would double. By the turn of the 20th century only a handful of countries were still insisting on passports to enter or leave. Today, migrant controls are back in fashion. It can seem like a natural fact of life that the name of the country on our passport determines where you can travel and work – legally, at least.

But it’s a relatively recent historical development – and, from a certain angle, an odd one. Many countries take pride in banning employers from discriminating against characteristics we can’t change: whether we’re male or female, young or old, gay or straight, black or white.

It’s not entirely true that we can’t change our passport: if you’ve got $250,000, for example, you can buy one from St Kitts and Nevis. But mostly our passport depends on the identity of our parents and location of our birth. And nobody chooses those.

Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon
Producer: Ben Crighton

(Photo: Irish and UK passports are on display. Credit: Getty Images)

Release date:

Available now

9 minutes

Last on

Mon 22 May 2017 03:50 GMT
BBC World Service Online, UK DAB/Freeview only

Sources and related links

Martin Lloyd - The Passport: The History of man’s most travelled document, 2008, pages 3, 18, 70-71. 63, 95-101, 200

Jane Doulman, David Lee - Every Assistance & Protection: A History of the Australian Passport, p34

Craig Robertson - The Passport in America: The History of a Document, 2010, p3

The Welfare Impact of Global Migration in OECD Countries. Amandine Aubrya, Michał Burzyńskia, Frédéric Docquiera. Journal of International Economics, 2016 

How a small Syrian child came to be washed up on a beach in Turkey 

Where is the cheapest place to buy citizenship 

Six out of ten migrants to Europe come for economic reasons - says Frans Timmermans 

On your bike 

Open Borders: The Case