Behind the passport fiasco

On Thursday a group of six Bhutanese on a Druk Air flight to Kathmandu carrying the green colored travel documents were not allowed entry into Kathmandu at the Tribhuvan International Airport and were deported back.

The six Bhutanese and a seventh one in the same group who had a passport came back via the same Druk Air flight.

The incident generated national outrage for the humiliation and inconvenience to the six passengers and there was strong criticism online for either not informing the Nepalese authorities or not having enough passports.

A senior official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the problem has happened because the German company that print’s Bhutan’s passports is unable to get supplies due to global supply chain issues.

The official said that Bhutan is not the only country affected as there are other countries also suffering from the same issue.

The passport shortage also occurred because with the Digital ID program being rolled out the plan was to issue e-passports to citizens and so MFA felt that not too many paper passports should be printed.

However, early this year when it became clear that Digital ID would take time then orders were placed for more passports, but here the German company informed that due to global supply chain and back log issues, the Bhutanese passports would only come by around October 2022.

This was followed by almost an entire year’s supply of passports based on previous years’ data running out in two to three months due to the Australia rush.

The senior MFA official said the ministry had even planned for this as a large stock of travel documents normally given to those who are not citizens was available. So even before the passports ran out all the approvals were sought and two weeks before issuing the travel document the Foreign Ministry through its Embassies and Missions informed all other embassies and mission of this.

As a part of the this the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi had sent a written Note Verbale to the Nepalese Embassy too informing of the issuance of travel documents and requesting them to be accepted as passports.

The senior official said that it is possible that either the Nepalese Embassy in Delhi did not inform Kathmandu or that they did inform and it did not trickle down to the immigration officials in the airport.

The senior official said in the case of other countries they have accepted the change by Bhutan and Bhutanese are traveling to countries like India, Australia, Thailand, Japan etc without any issues using the travel document. The official said if these countries did not accept the changes then there would be problems by now.

When the six passengers were stopped by the Nepalese immigration the Ministry in Thimphu and the Embassy in Delhi worked the phone lines to allow the entry of the Bhutanese, but it was not accepted and they had to come back.

The Nepalese officials said that the Bhutanese coming with passports would get visa on arrival, but those with travel documents needed to get them in advance from the Nepalese Embassy in Delhi.

The travel document change has not been entirely smooth in other cases too. In the case of the European Union countries, they said it will take some time as they discuss the matter.

When asked why Bhutan does not print its passport elsewhere or closer by in the region the official said the passport firstly has unique security features, and secondly if the passports are printed elsewhere then it would look different. The official said it is better to stick to a single printer who is also like a security printer.

There has been some rumors and even allegations online that the government is deliberately creating a shortage of passports to discourage people from travelling to Australia.

However, here the senior MFA official said the opposite is true. The official said that if the government really intended to stop people from going out then it could have just asked people to wait until October 2022 once the passports ran out.

The official said the government to ensure that people who wanted to go to Australia and other places are able to do so issued the Travel Documents as an alternative.

The MFA will ensure that once the passports are ready they will be exchanged with the travel documents and this is what has been informed to even foreign governments.

The official said that for those heading to Australia with the travel document they can get it changed in the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Canberra where the passports will be supplied too.

The incident has created a bad taste in the mouths of Bhutanese and there are those asking if Nepal was trying to slight Bhutan especially after Bhutan helped during the great earthquake with USD 1 mn and a medical team and also the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to Nepal.

However, here the senior official said this is not the case as feedback from the Embassy in Delhi, SAARC Secretariat and other places show that relations with Nepal has never been better, and there is a lot of goodwill for Bhutan.

The senior official advised that until the passports are ready people should not travel out unless it is for important reasons  like for medical issues, jobs, studies etc. The official said this is not the time to go out for shopping or a holiday with a travel document.

The travel document is normally issued to people who are not citizens of Bhutan, but residents and need to travel by air.

In the past years there have been instances of such document holders facing problems in entering India and Nepal. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it will assist those intending to visit Nepal using travel documents in obtaining the required visa from the Nepalese Embassy in Delhi.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it deeply regrets the inconvenience caused to the Bhutanese travellers and will continue to ensure that Bhutanese citizens can travel abroad without any hindrance.

It said Bhutanese travelling on a Travel Document In lieu of Ordinary Passport abroad are advised to check, prior to travelling, visa procedures and requirements of documents to process visa to enter the country of destination. 

The Druk Air flight may also be fined for the deportation case.

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