Common African Union Passport to Allow Free Movement Across the Continent

The African Union unveiled a new passport earlier this week that will allow citizens to cross between its 54 member states without visas

Matt Stabile /Flickr

Earlier this week, the African Union revealed a new pan-African passport at the opening of its summit in Kigali, Rwanda. According to a press release, the new electronic, biometric passport will eventually allow members of the 54 nations in the African Union, which includes every country on the continent except Morocco, to move freely between borders, similar to the way the Schengen Area works in the European Union.

Currently, only heads of state, ministers of foreign affairs and permanent representatives of AU members states based at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, are eligible for the Common African Passport. At the ceremony announcing its launch, chairperson of the AU and president of the Republic of Chad Idriss Déby and president of the Republic of Rwanda Paul Kagame received the first two passports. The release says the goal for the passport is to have it be available to all African citizens beginning in 2020

The passport is aimed at overcoming some big problems on the continent, reports Gregory Warner at NPR. Over half of the nations in the AU currently require visas for visitors from other countries on the continent. Some of those visas take weeks to receive and hinder easy trade or visitation. The current set up is likely one of the causes of Africa’s dismal intra-continental trade, which makes up only 11 percent of trade in the region.

However, the passport has many detractors worried that porous borders will lead to more smuggling, illegal immigration and terrorism, Anne Fruge at The Washington Post reports. Open borders could also increase stiff competition for jobs and lead to the spread of diseases like Ebola. Getting passports to people will also be a logistical nightmare, since 37 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have legal identification. That means nations need to up their game to register citizens before they can gain access to the passports.

Cristiano D’Orsi, a researcher who focuses on African migration at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, points out  at The Conversation that some nations like Rwanda and Senegal have already loosened their visa requirements for visitors within Africa. But, D'Orsi writes,there are several problems that must be dealt with, including the practical matter that so far only a handful of African countries currently use biometric passports (the kind with the chip introduced in the U.S. several years ago and now required to enter the country). Getting up to speed on that technology will take time and resources that many nations do not have. Another factor in the way, he writes, is anti-migrant sentiment, which is already high parts of the continent. Many visa requirements were implemented as intentional barriers to keep migrants from entering neighboring nations and competing for jobs.

As Fruge writes, the AU does have a chance to learn from the problems the EU has faced from its open borders policy. It can avoid some of these pitfalls by crafting regulations to prevent a race to the bottom in the labor market.

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