Despite several changes in the immigrations department, people queue for weeks to get passports.
Despite several changes in the immigrations department, people are still relying on middlemen and queuing for weeks waiting for their passports.
Carol Natukunda spent a day at the internal affairs ministry and brings you applicants’ sentiments about the passport office.
It is an emergency...’’ I tell the guard.
“Wait in line, madam. You are not the only one here,” he responds.
The Policemen guarding the entrance to the internal affairs ministry fend off applicants’ questions and special pleas.
The queue stretches along Old Portbell Road as applicants wait to be checked before they can access the premises.
Just outside the wall fence, a woman kneels down, oblivious to the soggy ground. Her hands clasped together like a praying mantis and head bobbing; this woman is thanking her “Heavenly Father for giving me my passport.” She has been trekking to and from the ministry for several months. And now, she has it firmly clasped to her chest.
“I cannot believe it,” she says. It is as if getting the passport was a matter of life and death.
I have my fears as I go through the metal detector. There have been some ruffled feathers recently, especially in the immigrations department, concerning illegal passports issued to foreigners and a good number of diplomatic passports which mysteriously went missing.
Several people have since been arrested. What if they ask me the purpose of my visit? From where I am standing, I can see two big tents sheltering many people. The smaller tent is for the ready passports and I can see some of them neatly stacked on the table.
The bigger tent is for fresh applicants.
I walk out and stroll about the premises. The security is not as tight as I expected it to be. People walk about the parking yard without anyone intercepting them.
I go to the bigger tent, which has about 100 people waiting in line to either submit their applications or get their passports.
Some lean on their seats in frustration and resignation written on their faces, others are reading newspapers or have plugged earphones into their ears, while some mothers are soothing irritable
Finally, finding a place to sit on the bench facing the entrance, I switch on my phone video recorder and lean back. I am seating between two young women. We exchange pleasantries.
Women selling files to applicants outside the immigration department
“I think when they (internal affairs ministry staff) are in school, the one thing they study there is how to say ‘come back next week,” says a lady, whom I later learn is Nagadya (second name withheld).
Her receipt number showing that she paid for her passport is 3***/14.
And her tentative passport number is B******1(We have hidden it for Nagadya’s safety).
Nagadya claims she has been coming here for her passport for several weeks in vain.
“See that woman dressed in blue?” she says pointing to the smaller tent, “She chased me away. She demanded sh50,000 to get the passport.
But I have already spent sh350,000. Do they know how we make this money?”
When I probe her, she finally opens up about having used a broker. “He is my uncle who knows insiders here.
They tell me my passport is already printed, but that it has not been signed so they tell me ‘come back next week’. The following week I return and they still say come back next week.”
The conversation then shifts to people doing kyeyo (odd jobs) abroad.
Nagadya’s friend says: “All these people lining up are going to be cleaning latrines and bathrooms, and sleeping on the street abroad. But those who go do not tell us the truth of how they suffer. I fear going for kyeyo.
But I just want my passport with me in case I get an opportunity to travel so I do not panic at the last minute.”
We go silent for a while.
“The people I applied with got their passports,” Nagadya says.
At this point, the people sitting behind us also start trading stories. You feel sorry for the mother whose baby cannot take the heat anymore and resorts to continuous crying.
You look at them all and they remind you of a long line of ants entering into a tiny hole.
“Are you also waiting for your passport or just applying for one?” a woman turns to me.
“A work permit,” I lie. “There is someone I am waiting for. He is going to help me.”
“You had better pester him. People here take their time,” she says.
“Maybe they should have made the tent (for ready passports) a bigger tent so we do not have to mix with those applying afresh. I have a receipt to show that I am picking my passport, but look where I am
sitting,” the woman laments.
The tent for the work permits is equally small.
“They make us suffer in our own country. There is a time it rained, and we had nowhere to take shelter
because the tent was small. They asked us to go outside the gate, but there is no shelter either. So we were drenched,” she goes on.
Nagadya, who has been quiet all this while, with her head in her palms, now joins the conversation.
“Bamalayo.” Literally meaning, they are lucky to be holding the high positions in the public office.
“Bafuna musaala omunene (They get huge salaries). But some are still corrupt.”
They go on to lament how some flashy first-time applicants are well treated.
“When someone comes in a car, they work fast on them and they get their passports in one day. There is a fat woman in Room 4. I think God created her with a heart like that of wild animals. She is so rude,” interjects another person.
They go on mumbling.
Nagadya’s phone rings. She does not pick. “Whoever this caller is should just leave me alone unless he or she is getting me my passport,” she says in an irritable tone, prompting those nearby to burst into contemptuous laughter, shaking their heads. It is about 12:40pm.
“Have they gone for lunch? The queues are not shifting,” someone asks.
“They are still around but some have already left.”
A light-skinned woman strides past our bench. She is dressed in a micro miniskirt and has tattoos visible on her entire body.
“Is she is flying to Jamaica. Those are tattoos for Jamaicans,” an applicant wonders aloud.
It is clear that even in their situation, they can afford some humour.
“Sometimes you put aside your passport problems and focus on other people in this waiting shed.
That is the only way to maintain your sanity,” he adds as everyone nods in agreement.
Nagadya’s phone rings again. It is her mother. “Mama, I am still at the passport office. “Bagenze kulya emere. ( They have gone for lunch),” she says.
There is laughter again.
“I wish they could be honest and tell us the exact date we should come back. You waste a lot of time and then you are not attended to,” Nagadya says.
“Don’t you think that they are going to tell us to come back on Monday, since it is a Friday afternoon?” asks Nagadya’s friend.
“That is what they normally do. I have been coming here for three months so I will not be surprised if they do not return even after lunch.”
A man comes and sits next to us. He has a file and is busy riffling through the contents.
“I have been coming here for three weeks and I am already tired. Now if you are talking about three months, then I am finished. I should not be complaining!” he says to which I ask him what the matter is.
“They told me they cannot trace my file. But they have told me to fill fresh forms. I have insisted that it would be hectic to get the LCs again. It is not my fault that the file is lost. So they have told me to fill in my names and basic background info. My data was entered in the computer. I saw it. But they say the person who signs the passport cannot sign without an original file,” the man says as he quickly fills the forms and leaves shortly.
We all go silent and wait. The queues are growing longer. It is 1:30pm and all the officials are out for lunch.
Nagadya’s friend breaks the silence. “Bagenda kulya lunch mpaka sawa mwenda.” Meaning they are going to have lunch until about 3:00pm.
Nagadya agrees. “I think you must be lucky to be attended to and get a passport immediately. I wonder what kind of prayer those who have succeeded to get their passports on time recited so I can recite it too and get the passport.”
Nagadya involuntarily stands up and walks over to a stout man wearing a checkered shirt who has been aimlessly walking about the car park.
Five minutes later, she comes back asking for a pen and paper.
“Is that the uncle you talked about?” I inquire. “He could help me get my work permit.”
“I have seen him around. He also says my face is familiar. But he has assured me he will help me,” she says.
I give her a small piece of paper on which she fidgets to jot something and quickly takes it to him.
Later when she returns, two or three people also follow the same man. They talk in whispers.
Another woman who has been silent all this while shrugs: “There are many brokers here.”
By this time, I am feeling hungry, but I cannot leave just yet. I have to walk in the applicants shoes.
Tired applicants seated on the grass on the roadside outside the immigrations department
The unending lunch
“Since they have gone for lunch, they might not come back. And especially since it rained today. Just wait and see. We might have to come back on Monday,” another enraged voice says from the back.
“You have to be here by 7:00am if you have to submit the forms.
Otherwise, you will wait the whole day. Sometimes when they return from the lunch break, they are very rude. You have nothing to do but to soften up,” he voice adds.
More people agree and mumble something about the “come-backnext- week syndrome.”
“But how long do the passports take to sign?” Someone wonders out loud, “My passport is there, but they say it is not signed. Isn’t the signature saved in the computer. Do you think there is somebody whose job it is to sit and sign all these passports?”
It is about 2:10pm now.
None of the officials in the tents are back yet. My recorder is still on.
“And, if they come back, you will see someone stealthily fixing in files.
The official will then feign toughness and ask the person who has brought the files to take them back.
But usually, they sneak the files among ready applications. Some people will have paid for their files to move faster. They overtake you who have been waiting patiently in the line,” someone says.
The conversation then turns to the bureaucracy in government departments.
“I think the only place without bribery is Interpol,” someone says.
“There is a woman called Betty. She tells you off even if you give her money, she refuses. And because of that order, things move fast,” they add.
“Wano, ebintu bili computersised, naye... simanyi”, implying they have computers but they do not use them.
At about 2:20pm, a tall man with a light skin complexion comes yelling: “everyone, can you follow some order. I do not want to see anybody standing in front of the tents!”
There are no more seats. And people are all over the parking yard.
Those who have been hoping to find seats in the smaller tent walk back sluggishly. Still, work has not resumed.
“But are they really still having lunch? Even those who left a few minutes to noon are still eating?”
someone wonders aloud.
“They are just passing time,” says one Senteza (first name withheld on request”. “This is ridiculous.” It is his second day here. The first time he came towards noon hoping to spend one hour. He left when he realized the queue was long. Today (November 21), he says he left his home in Kakira in the morning downpour and got to the ministry at 10:00am.
‘‘My clothes are now dry. I have not had breakfast, no lunch and now I fear that they will come and tell us to go home.’’
‘’It is as if they don’t mind making us suffer,’’ says Ebenezar, a 40-yearold businessman from Kyotera town council. “I wasted a lot of time looking for LCs and RDC to sign.Now I have to waste more time here,” he says.
It is about 2:30pm when a tall and tough-looking female guard in plain clothes walks up to the bench where I am sitting. She picks five of us and tells us to go and sit in the tent for ready passports as the officials have started to return from the lunch break.
Since I have no receipt to show that I am a passport applicant, I decide to stay back.
I loiter around observing people hiss and curse. By 3:30pm, my brain shutting down and I am as hungry as can be. But what about the people I found here? I drag my feet towards the exit.
I lost my job because of chasing a passport
trueI handed in my application on May 20, 2013. My passport receiving slip details are; Name: Kibojja Ayub, Code No:23188/13, File No.:B1031166, 20/5/13. I have moved for over one-and-a-half years and spent over sh700,000 on transport costs.
I lost my job due to absenteeism which resulted from spending a lot of time waiting in the tent at the ministry of internal affairs.
I have since given up on the passport. I wanted to travel abroad, but I cannot. I even thought of becoming a Rwandan citizen just to get a passport.
One time I went to room 10, they checked for my name in the computer and my details are there, but they said my passport was not ready.
All they would say was that I go back after two weeks. One time I found an official who told me to give him some money in order to check the progress of my passport.
Each time I would go back I would find a different person who would also ask for money. After chasing for one-anda- half years without any success, I have given up.
Passport application process
Go to the nearest immigrations office to pick Forms A and B
Take the forms personally for endorsement to your area local Council 1, 2, 3 RDC and DISO. After filling all the required information and endorsement, present your passport application forms and supportive documents to the cash office for assessment and pick bank payment advise forms.
You can also download the bank payment advise form from URA web portal http:/ura.go.ug
Go to the prescribed bank and pay sh120,000 for your passport. You will be issued with a receipt which you will present to the immigration cash office for verification.
Attach your verified bank receipt onto your passport application documents and present them to the receiving officer at the passport receiving section at your nearest Immigration Office.
Avoid Middlemen. Middlemen will be prosecuted and applications resulting from such transactions are disqualified by the passport control officer.
Minors should appear with parents/guardians.
Collect your passport in person when you are given a date on which to return. You will be required to present your identification at the time of collecting your passport.
What the ministry says
Pamela Ankunda, the spokesperson of the ministry, says the queues are not as long as they used to be.
“In fact, they are now growing shorter,” she says,
But she quickly observes that the demand for passports is on the rise. “Ugandans are seeking opportunities all over the world so they need passports to travel and it is their right to have them.
But also, some people always want to process passports at the last minute when they are travelling in a week or two. It is crazy,” Ankunda says.
In a bid to reduce overcrowding at the ministry, Ankunda says they have opened up other regional offices in Mbale, Mbarara and Gulu.
“People should not come all the way to the head office when there are offices in their regions,” she says.
“We are also due to start automated services such as sms services, so people can be automatically track the status of their passports, or be informed when their passports are ready without them first coming to check manually,” she says.
Ankunda strongly warns the public against paying cash to anyone around the premises.
She narrates the story of a young woman who had paid sh800,000 to brokers who just disappeared and did not help her.
She stresses that the applicants who are using brokers are the ones who face major delays.
“The mentality that you need to pay someone to get your passport is wrong and should stop. No one should pay money to any one at the ministry. The only money you need to pay for a passport is sh120,000 which is paid to the bank. As long as you have your forms signed by LC officials and relevant authorities, you can get your passport in just a week. You do not have to go through someone,” she says, adding that several brokers have been arrested and anyone found idling around for the same purpose, will also be arrested.
On the rudeness, delaying at lunch or come-back next week syndrome, Ankunda acknowledges that it is a problem that affects the entire public service sector.
“This is not just about the ministry. We need a total shift as public officials. We need to change our attitude,” she Ankunda.
She stresses that anyone with a complaint should come forward and report it. “Our twitter handle is active. We endeavor to respond to queries as soon as they are raised,” she says.
James Baba, the internal affairs state minister, feigned ignorance about passport delays. “Who says there is a delay?” he asked Sunday Vision on phone.
When asked about the queues, Baba also said the demand was up. “We have improved but we cannot serve everyone at the same time when we have to verify the documents,” says Baba.
When pressed further on why someone would have to wait for weeks in a digital era, Baba said we need to give credit where it due.
“But how many people have got their passports and they are happy? Those who are complaining are just a small number of people. Let us appreciate the fact that we are trying our best to improve services daily,” he says.
Sources also say incorrectly filled in forms and photographs that do not meet the passport office’s standards are also the major causes of rejection, which would extend the process of getting a passport.
How other countries work on passports
In Rwanda the electronic system has cut out the bureaucracy. An ordinary passport is issued within four working days, excluding the day of the application submission.
To renew a passport, one could spend only two days.
In Kenya, it takes about two weeks to get a passport. The country’s immigrations board also has several offices across the county to ease the burden.
Embassies across the world allow online applications.
In the UK, there has been uproar recently, after passports delayed for just a week or two for most applications. Ideally one must book an appointment at a Passport Customer Service Centre if you are in the UK and need a passport urgently.
There is the premium service which allows people to get their passports within four hours of your application.
You must go to the passport customer service centre to collect it. The Fast Track service means your passport is delivered to your home address within one week of your application being accepted.
Similarly in Malaysia, citizens get their passports only two hours after submitting all the requirements.
The pain of getting a Ugandan passport