They must return to their workplaces by the end of this year, but many are still waiting for their new passports
Many migrant returnees – who arrived in Bangladesh before the Covid-19 pandemic and became stranded amid the global crisis – have been waiting for months for their passports to be renewed, when their work permits are set to expire by the end of 2020.
Mohammad Faez, a 37-year-old native of Chandpur, is one such person waiting for his new machine-readable passport (MRP). He returned from Saudi Arabia in January on vacation, with plans to go back to his workplace by April this year.
However, the novel coronavirus pandemic left Faez stranded in Dhaka, which gradually became a matter of great concern as his work permit for the Middle-Eastern country is set to expire by the end of this year.
Faez applied to renew his passport at the Agargaon passport office in February and paid all the fees. On paper, the maximum official waiting time for a person to receive their passport is 21 days, but he has been waiting for his MRP for eight months.
Speaking to The Business Standard, the Saudi returnee shared his ordeal, "The validity for my Akama [work permit] will end this December. If the Saudi authorities do not extend my Akama's validity, I will lose my livelihood."
"I must return to my workplace by the end of this year, but I am still waiting for my new passport," he added.
Faez further said with a saddened tone, "Abroad, we work hard from dawn to dusk and bring our salary almost in its entirety to Bangladesh. But the authorities never provide us with the promised facilities in return."
Mohammad Faez is not alone in his predicament, because The Business Standard found that at least half of nearly a hundred people waiting for their new passports at the Agargaon passport office on 29 October were migrant returnees, planning to fly abroad in the next few months.
Md Bahauddin, 42, is another migrant who was supposed to fly for Saudi Arabia in mid-October this year, but instead he had to cancel his flights twice since their services resumed.
Narrating his experience, he said, "I had applied for my passport renewal in November last year. But for the following six months, every time I tried to track the progress of the renewal process through SMS, I only received a reply saying it was being printed."
"After getting the same message for months, I contacted a middleman at the Agargaon passport office, and paid him Tk12,000 this October. But the regular fee is just Tk3,450. He got me my passport within just a week," he added.
When this reporter visited the Agargaon passport head office on 29 October, several middlemen presented themselves as employees and claimed they could get anyone a new MRP within just a week.
However, the Department of Immigration and Passports denied such allegations, and told the reporter they have no such employees who can deliver passports on such short notice.
Responding to a query, Major General Mohammad Ayub Chowdhury, director general of the Department of Immigration and Passports, said, "We are issuing around 20,000 passports everyday across the country. We are bound to serve the migrants."
"The passport renewal process is now completely automated. In some cases, we cannot issue passports due to problems regarding printing machines and other difficulties," he added.
The director general also said in many cases, the process of issuing passports is delayed due to other procedures such as police verification and changes in names and addresses.
A deputy director of the department of Immigration and Passports, on condition of anonymity, said, "Due to a shortage of supply of books/pages for machine readable passports, most of the applicants do not get their passports on time."
"The e-passport project is also underway, and that is why we are receiving a lower number of machine readable passport books to print passports," the deputy director continued.
Commenting on the issue, Shariful Islam Hasan, head of BRAC's migration programme, said, "For the last year, we have witnessed numerous numbers of migrants facing problems with getting new machine readable passports."
"The process of going abroad begins with getting a passport, and a migrant's misery starts as soon as he becomes involved with the whole process. It seems that it is a never-ending hassle for them," he continued.
He added, "We have been urging the government for decades to create a new category of passport for the migrants. This will also allow the government to document the number of migrants and their current whereabouts."
"A new category of passport for migrants will also help ease their suffering," he said.