Movement as Human Right

Travel as a Human Right

Whether most of us realize it or not, we’re part of a privileged global demographic. We possess enough freedom, enough opportunity, and most importantly, enough money, to travel recreationally; we travel because we can, and because we enjoy it. Those of us who read and write and document the experience of travel are most likely educated, relatively affluent, and are almost certainly from a country with few restrictions on movement or political affiliation. For millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world, movement and travel is not a happy concatenation of exploratory pleasures and mild inconveniences. For the vast majority of human beings travel is frequently an act of desperation, a last resort in the face of war, natural disaster, economic hardship, oppression, resource depletion, gentrification, on up to things as horrifying as genocide. It is also not easy for most people, who are typically confronted with a variety of structural and social obstacles rendering attempts at relocation a dangerous and exploitative experience. Think Palestinian refugees, migrant Chinese laborers, American farm workers, or one of the tens of millions of garment workers in India or Bangladesh who have joined the rural to urban migration.

Its likely that few among the mobile class even think much about freedom of movement issues beyond the airport security queue. We get visas (and are therefore legal residents or visitors), we spend money, or we’re expatriate workers. We are walking, talking, money-spending resources and therefore we are mostly spared the hassles of travel and movement. It isn’t always a story of laissez faire journeying;  at times politically open, industrialized nations and regions have leaned on governmental authority and the administrative reach of the state to restrict the ability of individuals to move freely both inter- and intra-nationally. In 1950 the United States government, under the Subversive Activities Control Act, made it illegal for members of the communist party to seek or obtain a passport. The Jim Crow south incorporated a brutal system of vagrancy laws, debt entrapment, and prison labor to proscribe the movement of blacks. An argument could be made that the documentation costs associated with international travel are themselves itself a kind of de facto barrier to exit or entry for people below a certain economic threshold.

Despite these and other examples there is, in fact, a long history of positive affirmation of the right to travel, or the ‘right to movement,’ in the western legal tradition, reaching back at least as far as the Magna Carta, Article 42 of which states:

“It shall be lawful in future for anyone (excepting always those imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the kingdom, and natives of any country at war with us, and merchants, who shall be treated as if above provided) to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water, except for a short period in time of war, on grounds of public policy- reserving always the allegiance due to us.”

Now, there are certainly caveats, but, BUT the freedom of movement, to leave ones country, indeed to set out by land or sea (no Cheap-O Air or yet), was granted and affirmed. And the Subversive Activities Control Act? Fourteen years after it was passed, in Aptheker v. Secretary of State, the United States Supreme Court ruled Section 6 of the act, the section limiting travel, unconstitutional, finding that it violated fundamental liberties guaranteed by the fifth amendment. Other documents have since categorized movement as a fundamental right. From Article 13 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

And from Article 4 of the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility reads:

“Every African intellectual shall enjoy the freedom of movement within his o her country and freedom to travel outside and re-enter the country without let hindrance or harassment. No administrative or any other action shall directly or indirectly restrict this freedom on account of a person’s intellectual opinions beliefs or activity.”

The European Union, and this is true, declared in April of 2010 that travel and tourism are fundamental human rights. Unwilling to stop at declaring such activities basic rights, the EU then introduced a plan whereby program-eligible recipients would be granted a 30% subsidy for travel costs allowing people to visit places they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. A pilot will run until 2013 after which it will become official. Typical Euros.

While the rights to movement and travel both within and without a home country have been written into the canon of various international organizations they certainly aren’t static. Restriction regimes are always changing, and, in a post 9/11 world with the specter of transnational terrorism driving the increasing militarization of borders, its going to get more difficult (at least in the foreseeable future) for everyone, for us, the mobile class, and especially for those who lack even modest resources. This is an important debate especially suited to those of us who travel frequently. The rise of the security state, the seemingly absurd truth that capital can migrate freely (and indeed is pulled as often as pushed) while people are often trapped by emigration or immigration policies, the causes and consequences of human migration, our own responsibilities related to these issues – all of these are things we should can and should talk about, more often than we do.




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