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Passports saga endangers lives

The ongoing passports fiasco that has seen the department of passport services failing to issue new travel documents except for emergency reasons, is putting in jeopardy the lives of many Basotho who are finding it difficult to cross into South Africa for medical attention.

One of the victims of this government disservice, Lineo Setlabo* tells theReporter that she had to pay a bribe of M2000 to get a passport after the department rejected her application for a new one on the grounds that she could only be issued a new passport if she was going to South Africa for cancer treatment.

“I did bring a letter (that I had written myself) but my application was turned down for no clear reason. My previous passport had expired two years ago.

“When I demanded to know the reasons for the vetoing of my application for a new passport I was told to bring proof from my doctor. This too was declined because they said it could be bogus and they wanted proof from a government hospital. I could not provide the required proof because my cancer was not diagnosed at a government hospital.

“I then posted on social media, seeking advice, and somebody called and told me they could help me. I went to Teyateyaneng the next day, as advised by this person. I was desperate and scared that the cancer would spread to other parts of the body, so when that person demanded money to expedite the processing of my application I had no choice but to pay up. I got a new passport 24 hours later.

Setlabo also says she was both disillusioned and incensed when she was denied a passport despite needing it desperately. She urged government to sort out the passports debacle as failure to do so amounts to violation of citizens’ rights. She lamented that the problem also promotes corruption.

With patients feeling trapped and unable to travel to South Africa to see doctors, it is indeed officialdom’s position to issue passports on ‘valid’ justification like emergencies. Business people and school children are among those who have joined the growing chorus of discontent at having to fork out exorbitant amounts of bribe money to get a passport that costs M130.

“This issue of emergency passports has taken long now and we don’t see the government prioritising it; we don’t have jobs and would like to go to South Africa to look for jobs, but we are told our reasons are not enough to justify issuing us passports,” said a resident of Maseru one who asked to remain anonymous said.

Another interviewed business woman, Mamosiuoa Mojabeng said she buys her stock from South Africa and Botswana but she encountered problems when she applied for a new passport after hers got lost in February.

In a bid to establish the real cause of the problems around passport issuance, theReporter approached the ministry of home affairs’ director of passports, Mpiko Rafono who indicated that they are really facing problems regarding the issue of passports.

“I cannot deny the fact that corruption is rampant within our ranks. Even when the situation is normal there are people who still obtain passports by corrupt means just because they do not want to follow the prescribed steps.

“Yes, we do vet people for reasons of applying for passports because the ministry is still in talks with the Israeli company, Nikuv International Projects, which has been contracted to produce e-passports for Lesotho,” he said.

He said people do come up with various reasons for applying for passports; one of the most common reasons that people mention in their letters is that they have lost their passports and therefore need new ones to continue their businesses in South Africa.

“Ninety percent of the people that come to us claim to have lost their passports while the remaining 10 percent have reasons ranging from medical to banking, school and work permits.

“Every person’s reasons are valid but some of the reasons do need supporting documents. Sometimes we need to sit down with that person and extract the truth. There are people who lie to us and get away with it while others are not so lucky,” Rofono indicated.

Rafono further showed that, challenging as it is now to sit in the office scrutinizing each application, some people still don’t want to follow procedures but instead pay bribe to people on the streets to get passports. “Just today (Tuesday), somebody stormed into our office complaining that she had paid M350 to a guy at the gate who promised to get her a passport but never came back. It is disheartening.”

Meanwhile, this publication learned from inside sources that the real reason passports are not being issued is that Nikuv international was charging the government of Lesotho M32million a month to produce passports. This has reportedly prompted the government to seek to renegotiate the terms of its deal with the company.

However, Rafono was quick to dismiss these suggestions as pure and unfounded allegations which he knew nothing about. You have to bear in mind that the same company provides many other services to the government of Lesotho, which include production of drivers’ licences; therefore, it would be unreasonable to complain about its prices.

“If you look at how much people in Lesotho pay for a passport and compare it to other countries, you will notice that the M130 is like getting a passport for free. This is why people do not think twice before coming to us claiming to have lost their passports when the truth is that their passports have either been impounded or blacklisted for flouting South African immigrations laws.

“I think people who say the company is too expensive for Lesotho should also consider the worst case scenario of paying money that will ensure they take passports because they really need them and, once they have them, they should guard them with their lives,” he harangued.

Rafono went on to advise people to stop attempting to go the backdoor route to get services and seek to do the right thing. He concluded by beseeching people to take care of their passports as they cost the country a lot of money.

Nikuv was widely reported to have been awarded the lucrative contract to computerise the country’s border control system and produce electronic passports, birth and death certificates and national Identity Documents (IDs) without going through the requisite open public tender in 2012.

According to media reports, an estimated 500 000 Basotho are migrant workers in South Africa. They contributing to the economy of the country and also help decrease the rate of unemployment in Lesotho.

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