From 25 November this year, no airport in the world will accept handwritten Bangladeshi passports. But it will not be possible for the authorities to issue 10 million expatriates machine readable passports (MRP) within the next 10 months, meaning they run the risk of facing harassment at airports in various countries.
Officers at the Department of Immigration and Passports said this is a serious crisis. It would not be possible to issue so many passports within just 10 months. Along with being harassed, the expatriate Bangladeshis may even lose their jobs. Bangladesh may thus lose the labour market as well, they added.
Sixteen years ago the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) had given directives for MRP, but Bangladesh did not take timely action. The immigration and passports directorate officers blame the former director general for this state of affairs.
Ziaul Alam, the new director general of the Department of Immigration and Passports, told Prothom Alo, “We understand that this is a complex problem and we have dispatched various teams in order to resolve the issue. We have asked the embassies to be active in this regard, too. We are trying out best.”
According to the ICAO website, handwritten passports will not be accepted after 24 November 2015, that is, from 25 November this year. It will be compulsory for anyone travelling abroad to have an MRP and a machine-readable visa (MRV) as well.
The Bangladesh government signed the ICAO agreement in 1998. In keeping with the agreement, the MR passport and MR visa project began on 1 April in 2010. The Bangladesh Army is carrying out this project. MRP and MRV are being issued from 64 districts of the country and 55 embassies overseas.
A total of 25 million citizens of the country have passports. Of them, 10 million are expatriates. After the MRP project started, 7.54 million Bangladeshis got MRPs in these four and a half years. Till last 31 December, of the 10 million Bangladeshis abroad, only 1,304,000 have MRPs. The remaining 8.7 million or so have handwritten passports.
Officials concerned said every month 800 thousand expatriates would have to be issued passports if the 8.7 million of them were to receive these passports in 10 months. The embassies do not have the required number of personnel to deal with such a mammoth task. It would be difficult to appoint a new private company through tender for the work to be done rapidly. As it is, there is a shortage of passport books.
MRPs in various countries: The highest number of expatriate Bangladeshis is in Saudi Arabia. Of the 2.2 million Bangladeshis there, only 330,000 have MRPs. Of the 2 million Bangladeshi expatriates in UAE, 469,000 have MRPs. Of 600 thousand in Malaysia, 97 thousand; of 600 thousand in Oman, 62 thousand; of 500 thousand in Singapore, 55 thousand; of 400 thousand in Kuwait, 119 thousand; of 250 thousand in Qatar, 22 thousand; of 200 thousand in Bahrain, 40 thousand; of 100 thousand in Italy, only 1500 expatriate Bangladesh have machine readable passports. This rate is even lower in the other countries.
According to sources at the Department of Immigration and Passports, in consideration of the immigrants’ problems, the logistics at the Bangladesh missions abroad, and the lack of adequate equipment, the government has decided to outsource to private companies the issuing of MRPs in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, UAE and a few other countries. The personnel will go the homes of the applicants, record their details, take their photographs, fingerprints and digital signatures and send this back through the respective embassies to the directorate at Dhaka. When the passports are sent back, they will hand this over to the relevant persons.
The officials at the missions abroad will provide administrative assistance to the private companies. However, complications have already appeared in the process. For instance, the private Dataege-ipeople consortium in Malaysia began collecting applications and sending information to Dhaka from 29 May last year. However, the passport department and quarters within the home ministry began lobbying for the task to be given to another company. The Dataedge consortium was obliged to share the work with Iris Corporation. However, they are not being able to give too many passports. In one year, only 55 thousand passports were issued through private firms.
The most complications in this regard have arisen in the UAE. Iris Corporation won the contract there for the task, but the Bangladesh ambassador there, Mohammed Imran, wrote to the home ministry, complaining that Iris Corporation is simply carrying out its work though a different company which is charging more than the specified fee. This is sheer harassment for the expatriate workers there.
It is alleged that the former director general of the passports directorate, Abdul Mabud, is responsible for this predicament. The media had reported of corruption involved in the appointment of private companies, though Abdul Mabud has rejected such allegations.
Expatriates suffer: A senior reporter of Prothom Alo recently visited Qatar where the expatriate Bangladeshis told him that it took three to four months for MRPs to be issued. Bangladesh’s ambassador to Qatar, Syed Masud Mohammed Khandakar, said they had sent requests through the foreign ministry for additional staff and counters. They were even working on holidays.
Expatriates in UAE and Saudi Arabia had similar complaints. The embassy officials said they had written to Dhaka, but the government had not taken any action to resolve the problem. The expatriates are suffering in uncertainty over receiving their MRPs.
The passport department had sent some officials for the MRP work to the UAE, but they could not stay on without the valid permission. The foreign ministry wrote to the home ministry, asking for 12 officers of the armed forces and the home ministry to be issued diplomatic passports so that they could stay in the UAE for this task. The home ministry rejected this request and no officials could be sent there for the work.
MRP Project director Brig Gen Masud Rezwan told Prothom Alo, “No single person is responsible for the problem that has emerged. This has been caused by procedural errors. We now need to resolve this problem. We are endeavouring to ensure that all expatriate Bangladeshis receive their passports in time.”