Thursday, April 18, 2024
SocietyLines of frustration in limbo land

Lines of frustration in limbo land

Where passport backlogs, bureaucrats and broken dreams abound

Hundreds have been lining up daily around the busy Goteraarea in Addis Ababa. The queue stretches for hundreds of meters from the newly opened passport delivery office of the country’s Immigration and Citizenship Service (ICS), a sign of the high demand for services.

The scene at Gotera reveals the chaos engulfing all ICS offices in the city. Citizens like Abdu Ahmed have remained patient but frustrated as they wait their turn for days, hoping to receive travel documents to pursue opportunities for themselves and their families.

Abdu, a father of three from Ethiopia’s Harari region, endured the wait at Gotera with his family. They traveled to Addis Ababa after Abdu applied for passports online months ago to facilitate job opportunities for his daughters in Dubai. However, the ICS appointment message directed them to the capital rather than their local office.

When The Reporter spoke to Abdu on March 5th, he had already spent four working days lined up. His hopes of smoothly obtaining the documents turned into a grueling ordeal filled with anguish and ambiguity.

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“We came as instructed by the phone call, but they won’t let us inside each day despite waiting,” Abdu said, clearly frustrated by the difficulties facing his family. “They tell us to wait for our name’s alphabet, even though we came from so far already.”

The struggle intensified as Abdu’s money dwindled, making it hard to afford basic needs like food and lodging. He added that his family resorted to sleeping on the streets around the overwhelmed ICS office.

The situation reveals the immense backlogs facing Ethiopia’s immigration agencies, leaving countless citizens like Abdu in limbo and them and their families susceptible to difficult conditions while simply trying to access services they are owed. Swift solutions are clearly needed to avoid ongoing hardship.

The crowded waiting area showed the difficulties faced by applicants from all corners of Ethiopia. Many say they had been waiting in line for several days or even spent nights there without any alternative accommodation.

While the alphabetical system aimed to organize the process, it ended up complicating things for many – especially those from rural areas who had to endure longer waits based on where their name fell in the order.

Frustrations were evident among those seeking passports,who find the system difficult to navigate. The alphabetical information posted on the wall was in small, hard-to-read font, adding to inconveniences.

Private company secretary ZenebechMihretu was also among those waiting at Gotera, hoping to renew her expired passport ahead of an urgent work trip abroad.

“I arrived at 5am when the line was already long,” she said. “Some have been sleeping in their cars all night not to lose their place.” After 12 hours of waiting, she remained far from entry while others have slept in cars to hold spots.

She said she had applied online months ago but her renewal was not processed in time. “Even with an invitation letter, they won’t prioritize me,” Zenebech noted in exasperation.

The lack of clear direction about lining procedures only compounded stresses.

“People form multiple lines for one letter group,” Zenebech said. “How can I line up twice for my group?”

After a full day to no avail, Zenebech resorted to paying street children to hold her place overnight, with no guarantees. “They asked for 4,000 birr to hold my place. I ended up paying half. I had no choice if I want to keep my job,” she said.

Applicants from regional areas face even greater risks the longer they must wait, running short on funds and vulnerable to theft or other problems far from home. Solutions are urgently needed to relieve their burdens.

Many queuing for days at immigration offices across Addis Ababa reported having passports lost in the system. As frustrations mounted, some said security staff meant to ensure order instead made the situation worse through force and verbal abuse of citizens, including foreigners. 

Observers note most ICS departments are understaffed, with only a few officers to serve hundreds daily. The pressure on capital offices could be eased by decentralizing services and opening more regional branches, critics say.

But the core issue is insufficient passport supplies can’t keep up with high demand from Ethiopians pursuing jobs, education and travel abroad. ICS has long complained of low foreign exchange to import booklets mostly printed in France. Inefficiency and corruption have also hindered proper service as well.

When Prime MinisterAbiyAhmed (PhD) appointed SelamawitDawit, former Minster of Tourism, as director in July 2023, there was hope for immigration reforms. She immediately reshuffled leadership, resulting in imprisonment of some accused of illegal passport issuance. 

However, sources say passports can still be accessed through back channels costing over 120,000 birr. While Selamawit pledged 1.5 million new booklets in September plus clearing 300,000 backlogs, the reality on the ground months later contradicts progress.

Only 190,000 passports of the 1.5 million arrived in 2023.

Attempts to get comments from Selamawit on unfulfilled promises went unanswered. ICS communications staff said a media briefing on challenges was forthcoming. 

In her November 2023 first quarter report, Selamawit stated nearly 500,000 new passports had arrived from overseas, with priority given to those waiting over six months. However, the 45,000 citizens notified to collect travel documents represented just a fraction battling immense backlogs. Of those, only around 29,000 were actually able to receive passports.

Observers stress ICS suffers more from institutional inefficiency and lack of accountability than pure resource limitations. A comprehensive overhaul is needed under strict leadership to close dark chapters of the past and properly serve Ethiopian taxpayers. Unless supply meets demand and service decentralizes while maintaining integrity, immigration offices risk perpetuating citizen hardships through no fault of their own.

As thousands more like Abdu continue shouldering undue burdens in the pursuit of opportunities abroad or simple travel, the onus is on immigration authorities to deliver transparency and an improved customer experience that doesn’t compromise livelihoods or lawful rights.

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