Monday, Jul 15, 2019

Fix it

It is safe to say that the Minnis administration is having a tough go of it.

After winning the 2017 general election convincingly and sending former Prime Minister Perry Christie into retirement, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis and his government took a victory lap.

Gaffes were made, but nothing too damaging happened.

Then they signed a deal with Oban Energies for a $5.5 billion oil refinery project in East Grand Bahama on February 10, 2018 and things haven’t quite been the same.

The government, up to March 2019, has failed to take advantage of common-sense ideas to make life easier for many Bahamians.

Things like decriminalizing marijuana for recreational and medical use; enacting the Freedom of Information Act; introducing term limits for MPs; taking questions during “town hall meetings”; and fixing the mess that is the Passport Office.

I grew up Anglican, and the one refrain that I know by heart is: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

Well, if you meet a stranger who tells you that they recently renewed their passport and the experience was pleasant and easy, they are deceiving you and the truth is not in them.

There is no justification for Bahamians seeking to renew, or apply for, a passport to stand in long lines outside the Passport Office from 5 a.m. in 2019.

It is a failure of leadership and of the process, and it must change.

It is also unreasonable that some Bahamians seeking to renew their e-passports have to provide birth certificates for relatives, who in some instances have long been dead.

But that is the reality that some Bahamians face today.

The government of the people’s time is wasting the people’s time at the Passport Office.

The issue came to the fore in recent weeks after scores of disgruntled Bahamians stood in disorganized lines outside the Passport Office on University Drive a few weeks ago.

Acting Chief Passport Officer Siobhan Dean said the long lines are due to a lack of space in the Passport Office, and a lack of due diligence when the e-passport system was first rolled out in 2007.

“Why the process isn’t as seamless as it was in 2007 when the first e-passport was introduced was because they weren’t doing the due diligence that we are doing today,” she said last week when she appeared on the Guardian Radio 96.9FM show “Morning Blend” with host Dwight Strachan.

“You just came in with the old manual passport and your birth certificate and you had an affidavit that was not recorded.

“There might have been a misspelling with the name in the manual passport. That is why the process appeared to be so seamless back then.

“Today, what we are doing is, we are trying to get it right.

“We are asking persons that if you have an affidavit to have it recorded at the Registrar General’s Department. If you don’t have a birth certificate and you are using an affidavit, an affidavit cannot stand alone. There must be something to substantiate [it].

“That is why we are asking persons to get a hospital letter.

“In the event that you are unable to get a hospital letter, we say get a baptismal certificate or something that would substantiate your birth or give the affidavit some value.”

The Ingraham administration launched the e-passport system on December 5, 2007.

Brent Symonette was the minister of foreign affairs then.

At the time, the government, via Bahamas Information Services, said “the passport is being upgraded from a simple paper document to a more secure one – with biometrics features, including facial characteristics and fingerprinting”.

This was meant to be state-of-the-art.

So, why then, is the acting chief passport officer in 2019 saying that due diligence was not carried out in 2007? Is she suggesting that the Passport Office issued passports to people who should not have received them?

One observer opined that after listening to Dean, they were completely “frustrated, disappointed and angry”.

“She inspired no confidence,” they said, noting that she came across as “nonchalant and clueless”.

“People are saying that, ‘I already have an e-passport. Wasn’t this supposed to be a state-of-the-art passport? What could possibly be the justification of a repeat of this process?’”

Indeed, as the observer pointed out, this latest debacle suggests a complete and utter failure of our leadership.

Why are Bahamians being forced to endure long lines, excessive delays and onerous document requests in 2019?

Why is it easier to apply for a U.S. visa than a Bahamian passport?

Sensitized

One applicant, who visited the Passport Office yesterday, said they were shocked by the crowd.

Passport applications usually spike around Easter and the summer months.

Dean noted that, in recent weeks, people have been coming to the Passport Office from 5 a.m.

At 7:30 a.m., staff at the office begin examining documents and the office opens at 8 a.m., she said. That’s when the enrolment process begins, she said.

“On average, for the past three weeks, we have been serving over 200 persons a day,” she said.

It is clear that the staff at the office are some of the hardest working in the government.

The applicant told National Review that staff at the information desk and the defense force officers on duty are doing their best to make the experience as pleasant as possible.

On Friday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the Passport Office’s online appointment system was discontinued.

“Visit the Passport Office for the renewal of your passport,” the ministry said in a statement.

Reporters asked Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield yesterday about the debacle.

He said it is “intolerable” that Bahamians have to stand in long lines.

“We are working actively to resolve and mitigate this situation as it stands now,” he said.

“We are looking potentially at providing another space that will alleviate the burdens currently felt and experienced at the one single standing building that we have.

“Perhaps we look at a place where you go and make your application, and another place to go and receive your passport.”

He added, “We believe that [what] we are seeing is an occurrence that we saw 10, 15 years ago, when Bahamians came in great numbers to renew their passports.”

Finally, when asked about the issue of some Bahamians being asked to bring in documents from deceased relatives, he said, “There are instances where Bahamians have to verify.

“All Bahamians born before 1973 are automatically Bahamian citizens. Others who came after, you have to verify your birth.

“You have to show proof of birth. Are we being onerous and burdensome to Bahamians? Well, that’s a matter of opinion.

“Each case is seen on a case-by-case basis.”

Due to the need to provide additional documents, scores of people leave the Passport Office and head to the Registrar General’s Department, seeking birth certificates and other documents in the wake of increased difficulties in applying for their passports.

The Guardian spoke with several people currently engaged in the process.

Sammy Penny, 19, has been trying to renew his e-passport since January.

Penny said he’s been turned around for affidavits for both of his parents and his father’s birth certificate.

“I had a passport before, and I am full Bahamian, and it’s taking a lot to get your passport,” he said on Monday.

“When you go to the Passport Office, they tell you one thing, and when you go back there they send you for a next thing. So, it’s been very bad.

“And then it [isn’t] organized. You have to wait outside to wait inside to get served. And it’s taking too long just to get a passport. I think it needs to be simpler.”

Perhaps, it would be easier if the Passport Office and the Registrar General’s Department had some form of communication to facilitate the transfer of documents in a secure way.

Perhaps one day Ja Rule will actually promote a music festival that happens. One can dream.

I do not believe the minister is properly sensitized to the plight of people like Penny.

This very debacle is a failure of leadership.

The leaders of our country should not be okay, in any way, with what is happening at the Passport Office.

The fact that our leaders are not pulling out all of the stops to fix the issues facing the Passport Office suggests that maybe the wrong people are leading us.

Travis Cartwright-Carroll

Assistant Editor at The Nassau Guardian
Travis Cartwright-Carroll is the assistant editor. He covers a wide range of national issues. He joined The Nassau Guardian in 2011 as a copy editor before shifting to reporting. He was promoted to assistant news editor in December 2018.
Education: College of The Bahamas, English

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