Photo Courtesy : Yam Kumar Poudel

A Squid Game for Passports

On 22 October 2022 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) announced that around 60,000 passports would enter the country by the last week of October 2022.

MFA then put out a notification on its website saying from 2 November 2022, it would issue 200 passports in a day with 50 slots for people who can come in person after getting online appointments.

This was strange because if 60,000 passports are in the country then the MFA should be issuing much more numbers of passports, given the backlog since August 2022 when it ran out of passports, the Australia admission season starting in January 2023, and November and December normally seeing a high rate of Bhutanese traveling out for medical checks, holidays and pilgrimage.

The minimal 200 passports issued in a day did very little to address the huge backlog and new demand.

Many frustrated citizens demanded answers as the dates for visas and travel neared, but there were no answers from the Passport Office or the MFA on why the issuance of passport was so sluggish.

Hiding the truth

However, it now appears that what the MFA and Passport Office were not revealing to the public, until now, was that the 60,000 passports, as promised by them, had never arrived and instead a consignment of only 10,000 passports came in the last week of October, with the second consignment of around 40,000 plus passports delayed by over a month and expected to come by the last week of November or the first week of December 2022.

This is while the public thought the passports were all here, and applied in large numbers and many even traveled to Thimphu from all parts of Bhutan hoping to get passports mainly to get studies and employment opportunities abroad.

Even for the 10,000 passports here, another issue was that while there are two machines in the Passport Office, only one machine (as of 23 November morning) was being used to print the details with the other kept as a ‘back up’ incase that one machine got spoilt.

Online application not working well

To make a bad situation worse, the G2C site to apply for passports online did not work well for many people due to possible server problems, which exacerbated logging into the system, and some people even complained that their payment made were not reflected in the system.

The online provision or link to get 50 slots a day for in-person submission was also a nightmare as the slot that opened at 10 am every working day ran out around 5 minutes, with only those enjoying high speed internet able to get in. Many even resorted to hiring multiple friends to try at the same time for the same person.

People who tried contacting the passport office numbers via phone or in-person complained of getting no response, unhelpful answers and even rude replies over the phone and in-person.

Squid Game

Mass panic also set in, as it was assumed that the Passport Office would only issue 200 passports a day for all time to come.

The entire effort to get a limited number of 200 passports a day by thousands of panicked citizens turned into a Bhutanese version of ‘Squid Game,’ (Korean series where a group of desperate people compete ruthlessly in a game for a pot of money) as large numbers of desperate people, and particularly Australia bound students, tried to get only a few slots or passports.

All this, while the MFA kept mum on the real reason for why there were not enough passports. If it had transparently announced that the remaining 40,000 plus passports are not here due to a one-month delay, then those traveling in December and January next year would not be as worried or would not have crowded the passport office and the online system.

Lyonpo promises things will be set right soon

With public pressure and frustration mounting, the MFA Minister Dr Tandi Dorji admitted that despite the announcement of 60,000 passports coming in more than a month ago, only 10,000 passports had come, and of this 10,000 only 2,500 were left.

In response to the rude experiences faced by people, he said he has talked to the passport officials and he has instructed them not to be rude and to offer better services. Lyonpo said he has also sorted out a few difficult cases, and is following up with those not coming to pick up the passports.

Lyonpo said that once the remaining 40,000 plus passports reach Bhutan by the last week of November or the first week of December then the matter will be resolved, as all the backlog cases will be cleared.

The minister said that the combination of the huge rush in 2022 and the global chain supply issues had caused the passports to finish and also not come in time.

He said on the second consignment the passports were supposed to come to the Kolkata port where it was to be picked up but it ended up elsewhere.

The minister said they have approximately about 3,000 passport backlog cases, and because of that they are issuing only for the urgent ones.

Lyonpo said that they are facilitating the urgent cases first, which are based on medical emergencies, air ticket confirmation, confirmation of enrollment letter, need to lodge their visa within two weeks of payment, fees paid to university and expiry of documents, child going with family, but he said people are bypassing this.

He said people are coming forward saying it’s urgent, and later it is not found to be urgent as around 488 passports are uncollected from 3 November onwards. The total number of uncollected passports since 25 September is 613 passports.

Here, some people said the online SMS system is not working well, as they are not getting the SMS alerting them that their passport is ready, and some only find out when they go physically without the SMS or their relatives check for them.

The minister, however, said that the staff are using the numbers given to them, and though the online system is not the purview of the ministry, they would also follow up with DITT.

Lyonpo said that pressure is also being generated by the education consultancies who are demanding passports from students even while Australia has been accepting travel documents.

“Earlier, when medical checks were done, passports were not required but now they are saying that for medicals you need passport,” said Lyonpo.

The minister said in Australia, it takes up to four months to get a passport, while it takes six months in Bangladesh due to supply chain issues.

The Data story

However, while the MFA says the rush was unforeseen the data tells a different story.

In 2015, a total of 12,926 passports were issued. 12,070 passports issued in 2016. 2017 it was 12,108 passports issued, in 2018 it was a high of 13,266 passports, and in 2019 it was 12,826 passports issued.

This means that the average passports required was around 12,000 a year. Now in in 2020, with the pandemic the numbers dropped to 3,597 passports and in 2021 to 7,586 passports.

Therefore, MFA should have done simple math to predict that 2022 would see the backlog of 2020 and 2021 building up along with the added Australia Rush, but only 19,097 passports were kept ready which ran out by August 2022.

On this the foreign minister said that the hope was to go for a digital passport but since the Digital ID Project could not collect national biometric data, therefore, the digital passport could not happen.

People suffer

In the meantime, people trying to travel, and especially the youth trying to go out for studies and jobs are facing major issues.

Rinchen Pelmo came all the way from Zhemgang for a passport, and it has been three days, but still she did not get an appointment. This is frustrating for her as she is spending a lot of money. “I tried doing it online but even before I finish typing my name, the slot gets full,” she said.

She said, “I am trying for overseas employment for which we need passport, and when we get delayed like this, we have to sacrifice all the good opportunities we get. We tried requesting the officials in-person, but they did not hear us out.”

Sonam Gyeltshen said, “I have come all the way from Paro for a passport, and this is my third time coming to Thimphu. I have spent a lot as I have to come in a taxi all the time.”

He tried applying for a passport online several times, but that did not work which is why he had to come in-person to request officials, but with no luck.

He said a passport is a must have document to go abroad, and when this is an issue, it not only stops people from grabbing better opportunities but also waste their time and resources.

Yeshi Choden said that it’s been a few days that she has been coming to the passport office early morning, however, each time she returns in frustration. It is not that she did not try doing it online. She did but it takes a lot of time, and sometimes the system is down, she added.

“I am a class XII pass out, and it is difficult to get a job here. I want to look for opportunities but even a simple thing, which is to process for a passport is difficult for us. This is frustrating as we spend too much money and time everyday to come here for the same purpose. It is high time the government does something about it,” Yeshi said.

Tshering Dhendup said that he has been waiting for a few days in order to process his passport. Everyday he comes to the passport office with a hope of getting it done, but returns home with the same disappointment.

He said, “Online registration starts at 10 AM but within a few second, the 50 slots get full. We have been requesting the official here, but they ask us to try doing it online which really doesn’t work. Even to apply for a job overseas, we need a passport and when this happens, we miss out on opportunities.”

Tara Sharma from Thimphu said, “We family members have a program to visit Kathmandu in the last week of November. Many members haven’t yet got their passport, though applications been submitted in the first week of November. Sadly, they may not get a chance to join a few of us, who already had the passport. Yes, nothing can be so frustrating than having cancel the trip due to such delays.”

Tandey Phurba also from Thimphu said he got his wife’s passport renewal approved and paid the necessary charges a month ago. “They said we will get a SMS directing when it can be collected but I haven’t received such a SMS till date. I don’t know where to approach,” he added.

Diwas said he applied online for passport renewal on 26 October and paid too, but he could still see on their online tracking system that he was yet to make the payment, though the money was deducted and the bank statement proved it.

He went to the office twice but could not resolve the issue. The first time, a lady took his tracking number and assured him that it would be fixed. The issue still remained.

The second time, he was directed to a lady who was busy on her phone.

“She told me that their ‘system’ was down and that I may call their phone number. I said I did several times. I told her I dialed all the extension numbers as directed by the automated voice service. She then tells me that those are not the actual numbers and that I should dial 106,107 and108. My passport renewal is still pending to this day with the status still showing ‘pending payment,” said Diwas.

On 22 October 2022 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) announced that around 60,000 passports would enter the country by the last week of October 2022.

MFA then put out a notification on its website saying from 2 November 2022, it would issue 200 passports in a day with 50 slots for people who can come in person after getting online appointments.

This was strange because if 60,000 passports are in the country then the MFA should be issuing much more numbers of passports, given the backlog since August 2022 when it ran out of passports, the Australia admission season starting in January 2023, and November and December normally seeing a high rate of Bhutanese traveling out for medical checks, holidays and pilgrimage.

The minimal 200 passports issued in a day did very little to address the huge backlog and new demand.

Many frustrated citizens demanded answers as the dates for visas and travel neared, but there were no answers from the Passport Office or the MFA on why the issuance of passport was so sluggish.

Hiding the truth

However, it now appears that what the MFA and Passport Office were not revealing to the public, until now, was that the 60,000 passports, as promised by them, had never arrived and instead a consignment of only 10,000 passports came in the last week of October, with the second consignment of around 40,000 plus passports delayed by over a month and expected to come by the last week of November or the first week of December 2022.

This is while the public thought the passports were all here, and applied in large numbers and many even traveled to Thimphu from all parts of Bhutan hoping to get passports mainly to get studies and employment opportunities abroad.

Even for the 10,000 passports here, another issue was that while there are two machines in the Passport Office, only one machine (as of 23 November morning) was being used to print the details with the other kept as a ‘back up’ incase that one machine got spoilt.

Online application not working well

To make a bad situation worse, the G2C site to apply for passports online did not work well for many people due to possible server problems, which exacerbated logging into the system, and some people even complained that their payment made were not reflected in the system.

The online provision or link to get 50 slots a day for in-person submission was also a nightmare as the slot that opened at 10 am every working day ran out around 5 minutes, with only those enjoying high speed internet able to get in. Many even resorted to hiring multiple friends to try at the same time for the same person.

People who tried contacting the passport office numbers via phone or in-person complained of getting no response, unhelpful answers and even rude replies over the phone and in-person.

Squid Game

Mass panic also set in, as it was assumed that the Passport Office would only issue 200 passports a day for all time to come.

The entire effort to get a limited number of 200 passports a day by thousands of panicked citizens turned into a Bhutanese version of ‘Squid Game,’ (Korean series where a group of desperate people compete ruthlessly in a game for a pot of money) as large numbers of desperate people, and particularly Australia bound students, tried to get only a few slots or passports.

All this, while the MFA kept mum on the real reason for why there were not enough passports. If it had transparently announced that the remaining 40,000 plus passports are not here due to a one-month delay, then those traveling in December and January next year would not be as worried or would not have crowded the passport office and the online system.

Lyonpo promises things will be set right soon

With public pressure and frustration mounting, the MFA Minister Dr Tandi Dorji admitted that despite the announcement of 60,000 passports coming in more than a month ago, only 10,000 passports had come, and of this 10,000 only 2,500 were left.

In response to the rude experiences faced by people, he said he has talked to the passport officials and he has instructed them not to be rude and to offer better services. Lyonpo said he has also sorted out a few difficult cases, and is following up with those not coming to pick up the passports.

Lyonpo said that once the remaining 40,000 plus passports reach Bhutan by the last week of November or the first week of December then the matter will be resolved, as all the backlog cases will be cleared.

The minister said that the combination of the huge rush in 2022 and the global chain supply issues had caused the passports to finish and also not come in time.

He said on the second consignment the passports were supposed to come to the Kolkata port where it was to be picked up but it ended up elsewhere.

The minister said they have approximately about 3,000 passport backlog cases, and because of that they are issuing only for the urgent ones.

Lyonpo said that they are facilitating the urgent cases first, which are based on medical emergencies, air ticket confirmation, confirmation of enrollment letter, need to lodge their visa within two weeks of payment, fees paid to university and expiry of documents, child going with family, but he said people are bypassing this.

He said people are coming forward saying it’s urgent, and later it is not found to be urgent as around 488 passports are uncollected from 3 November onwards. The total number of uncollected passports since 25 September is 613 passports.

Here, some people said the online SMS system is not working well, as they are not getting the SMS alerting them that their passport is ready, and some only find out when they go physically without the SMS or their relatives check for them.

The minister, however, said that the staff are using the numbers given to them, and though the online system is not the purview of the ministry, they would also follow up with DITT.

Lyonpo said that pressure is also being generated by the education consultancies who are demanding passports from students even while Australia has been accepting travel documents.

“Earlier, when medical checks were done, passports were not required but now they are saying that for medicals you need passport,” said Lyonpo.

The minister said in Australia, it takes up to four months to get a passport, while it takes six months in Bangladesh due to supply chain issues.

The Data story

However, while the MFA says the rush was unforeseen the data tells a different story.

In 2015, a total of 12,926 passports were issued. 12,070 passports issued in 2016. 2017 it was 12,108 passports issued, in 2018 it was a high of 13,266 passports, and in 2019 it was 12,826 passports issued.

This means that the average passports required was around 12,000 a year. Now in in 2020, with the pandemic the numbers dropped to 3,597 passports and in 2021 to 7,586 passports.

Therefore, MFA should have done simple math to predict that 2022 would see the backlog of 2020 and 2021 building up along with the added Australia Rush, but only 19,097 passports were kept ready which ran out by August 2022.

On this the foreign minister said that the hope was to go for a digital passport but since the Digital ID Project could not collect national biometric data, therefore, the digital passport could not happen.

People suffer

In the meantime, people trying to travel, and especially the youth trying to go out for studies and jobs are facing major issues.

Rinchen Pelmo came all the way from Zhemgang for a passport, and it has been three days, but still she did not get an appointment. This is frustrating for her as she is spending a lot of money. “I tried doing it online but even before I finish typing my name, the slot gets full,” she said.

She said, “I am trying for overseas employment for which we need passport, and when we get delayed like this, we have to sacrifice all the good opportunities we get. We tried requesting the officials in-person, but they did not hear us out.”

Sonam Gyeltshen said, “I have come all the way from Paro for a passport, and this is my third time coming to Thimphu. I have spent a lot as I have to come in a taxi all the time.”

He tried applying for a passport online several times, but that did not work which is why he had to come in-person to request officials, but with no luck.

He said a passport is a must have document to go abroad, and when this is an issue, it not only stops people from grabbing better opportunities but also waste their time and resources.

Yeshi Choden said that it’s been a few days that she has been coming to the passport office early morning, however, each time she returns in frustration. It is not that she did not try doing it online. She did but it takes a lot of time, and sometimes the system is down, she added.

“I am a class XII pass out, and it is difficult to get a job here. I want to look for opportunities but even a simple thing, which is to process for a passport is difficult for us. This is frustrating as we spend too much money and time everyday to come here for the same purpose. It is high time the government does something about it,” Yeshi said.

Tshering Dhendup said that he has been waiting for a few days in order to process his passport. Everyday he comes to the passport office with a hope of getting it done, but returns home with the same disappointment.

He said, “Online registration starts at 10 AM but within a few second, the 50 slots get full. We have been requesting the official here, but they ask us to try doing it online which really doesn’t work. Even to apply for a job overseas, we need a passport and when this happens, we miss out on opportunities.”

Tara Sharma from Thimphu said, “We family members have a program to visit Kathmandu in the last week of November. Many members haven’t yet got their passport, though applications been submitted in the first week of November. Sadly, they may not get a chance to join a few of us, who already had the passport. Yes, nothing can be so frustrating than having cancel the trip due to such delays.”

Tandey Phurba also from Thimphu said he got his wife’s passport renewal approved and paid the necessary charges a month ago. “They said we will get a SMS directing when it can be collected but I haven’t received such a SMS till date. I don’t know where to approach,” he added.

Diwas said he applied online for passport renewal on 26 October and paid too, but he could still see on their online tracking system that he was yet to make the payment, though the money was deducted and the bank statement proved it.

He went to the office twice but could not resolve the issue. The first time, a lady took his tracking number and assured him that it would be fixed. The issue still remained.

The second time, he was directed to a lady who was busy on her phone.

“She told me that their ‘system’ was down and that I may call their phone number. I said I did several times. I told her I dialed all the extension numbers as directed by the automated voice service. She then tells me that those are not the actual numbers and that I should dial 106,107 and108. My passport renewal is still pending to this day with the status still showing ‘pending payment,” said Diwas.

Check Also

Foreign Minister says Bhutanese going to and coming from Australia will even out in 5 to 6 years

The Foreign Minister Dasho (Dr) Tandi Dorji said there are 32,258 Bhutanese in 113 countries …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *