By PATRICK JARAMOGI
KAMPALA-SHIFTMEDIA-The night was warm, but as I set off to go to the Ministry of Internal Affairs along Old Port bell Road at 2.30 am one Thursday morning, the weather became chilly.
My mission was to ascertain claims that the multitudes of passport seekers at the immigrations are ferried in by the labour exporting firms as alleged by Gen. Jeje Odong, the Minister for Internal Affairs, whose docket the immigration department, that issues passports falls.
By the time I reached close to 3 am, I managed to count 83 persons, the majority women aged between 19- 26. It wasn’t clear whether they had spent the night there or came before I reached. For the next hours, multitudes kept coming, majority aboard boda bodas, while somewhere dropped in private cars that I presumed belonged to kinsfolks or friends. A few came in driven in taxis, that changed from Total petrol station opposite Internal Affairs and turned back.
By 5.30 am, the number was way beyond 370 persons. The count became hectic as it clocked 6 a.m. The last attempted count after 7 am ended at 500+, apparently, I observed that some immigrations staff checked in as early as 4 am
and engaged a cross-section of the desperate passport seekers in trifling chats.
Some were seen exchanging money with these staff, which I later learnt was to secure fast processing of their passports.
Jane Atim (not real names), aged 23, a former nursery school teacher from northern Uganda was among the hundreds who braved the morning drizzle, with high hopes of securing a passport. She left Gulu, two weeks ago, but despite being on an appointment, she had spent two weeks, queuing up daily. “I don’t have a relative near Kampala, the only one nearby stays in Kitooro, Entebbe. Imagine transport daily to come here. I can’t afford it, even my sister can’t,” she said. Jane explained that she opted to hang out at the nearby lufra (Kampala abattoir) adjacent where business takes place 24/7.
“I realized that people inside there (lufra) don’t sleep. All I must have is some cash for tea and a small bite. Before I realize it IS 2/3 am then I can stroll back to my place for queuing,” she said.
Kansiime Rachael another fraught young lady came in all the way from Isingiro. The impact of Covid 19 provoked her lay off from the bar and restaurant she was working. “I and others were told to go home since the bars were closed. When I saw no hope, my parents sold two cows and gave me money to process a passport to travel abroad for kyeyo,” she said. She is destined for Saudi.
Express passport scheme abused
Though Rachael paid shs400,000 as fees for express passport processing, she is among the hundreds yet to be cleared.
“I had hope that if I pay for express, I would get my passport in 2- 4 days, it is now coming to three weeks,” she said with diminished hopes. Rachael is not alone among those facing the pain of acquiring a Ugandan travel document. The few ladies we talked too said even after paying the official shs400,000 for express, some corrupt immigration officials still charged extra fees to process the passport faster. “Some of my friends with rich relatives paid between shs500,000 to shs2million and they got their passports immediately. Some staff (immigration) come and ask us while in the queues if we can top up so that we can be processed fast.
Though allegations were rife that some labour exporting firms were paying immigration officials between shs2million to shs10million to quickly process passports for their clients, these allegations were hard to prove.
But the allegations regarding securing a fast appointment (jumping the queue) were proved when I stood in the queue and one immigration staff (names withheld who thought I was applying for a passport asked if I had an appointment. “No I don’t,” I replied.” ‘Do you have shs200,000 I fix for you an appointment,” he said. “No cash my brother,” I responded. “Fine can you raise shs50,000?” he said. I replied: “Let me get mobile money before I vanished and mixed among the crowds.”
Due to high desperate levels, some conmen also camp daily outside the
immigration department to fleece these desperate Ugandans, especially those with no knowledge of digital, online passport application.
Illegal labour exporting firms minting millions
Apparently, the findings were nerve-wracking. The majority of the applicants are young women seeking to get jobs as domestic workers, and cleaners in the Middle East. According to the Bilateral agreements, Uganda can send domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, and or the United Arab Emirates. The 209 labour exporting firms registered with the Ministry of Gender take up to 80-90 % of the applicants to Saudi Arabia, though a few revealed that they were being taken for jobs in Oman, Jordan, Qatar, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Thailand, South Africa, and Iraq.
But my findings was that the firms these applicants mentioned such as Viola Investments based in Kisaasi, a Kampala suburb have never been registered to export labour abroad. Some firms, we discovered from the latest list released by the Ministry of Gender after lifting of the ban of labour exportation on September 2020, had long been suspended.
Some firms though still having licenses to operate have literally shut down and limping due to the financial impact caused by Covid 19, and thus are just trying to get some funds to rise up again and basically to survive.
Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) speaks out
Ronnie Mukundane the UAERA Communications officer urged the government to stop shifting blames. “The Government must appreciate that they are generating revenue, and too much for that sake. Each time a Ugandan applies for a passport they part with shs250,000 for ordinary processing and shs400,000 for express,” said Mukundane.
He said the remittances from Ugandans working abroad towards the country’s GDP is over USD$ 1.3b annually, of which USD$ 700 million is from the Middle East.
“Due to Covid 19 pandemic, these figures have dropped. Bank of Uganda has indicated that they lost over USD200 million last year due to the pandemic,” he explained.
According to the World Bank remittances to Sub-Saharan countries are expected to decline by around 9 per cent in 2020 to $44 billion.
Remittance flows to low and middle-income countries are projected to fall by 7 per cent, to USD 508 billion (1.896 trillion Shillings) in 2020, followed by a further decline of 7.5 per cent, to USD 470 billion (1.7 trillion Shillings) in 2021.
Mukundane said described as roumers reports that the labor external firms ferry people to Internal Affairs to create tension. “The Ministry of Internal Affairs and government for that matter must appreciate the numbers. This means more revenue for government. Even when these Ugandans travel, they will send more money back home,” he said. He instead urged government to stop complaining and instead style up. “Government has had only one passport printing machine all these years. The number of Ugandans applying for passports have increased, why not purchase another machine and decentralize the issuance of passports?” he asked.
Government earns over shs400 million daily from passport application, totaling to shs8billion a month and over shs96b annually.
He suggested that the issuing of passport should be decentralized like the case for Driving permits to ease numbers and influx at Internal Affairs.
“The reason the numbers are many is that someone from Arua, Mbarara, Kabale, Gulu, Karamoja is coming to Internal Affairs to pick his/her passport,” he said.
The UAERA Chairperson Baker Akantambira warned Ugandans against using non registered labour firms. “Any non-registered firm that takes Ugandans abroad is engaging in human trafficking, that is illegal and such companies should be exposed,” said Akantambira. He warned those who flout laid down operating procedures risk being de-registered. “We have had many labour exporting firms de-registered for unethical conducts,” he said.
Gen. Jeje Odong Speaks Out
Internal Affairs Minister Gen. Jeje Odong came out to say the mess at his premises is due to external labour recruiting firms that ferry in their clients seeking passports. He has however reiterated his Ministry’s efforts to clear the influx. “Those people you see outside
there are ferried in by the labour firms. Every day we conduct 300 interviews for those on an appointment,” he said during an interview.
Adding: “Majority come in and stay with hope that they will be attended too but by 3 pm once the daily 300 have been attended too, the numbers reduce.” Odong who has been on the firing line from Parliament said immigrations now has the capacity to print 1,000 passports per day.
Earlier this month The Ministry of Internal affairs suspended the issuing of express passports until further notice.
Jacob Siminyu, the Ministry spokesperson said the decision was reached after the number of applicants for the express passports surpassed those who follow the normal procedure of four days.
According to him, the numbers of people who apply for the express travel booklets has grown by 90% while the other applicants reduced to 10%.
He attributed the increase to labour export companies which are deliberately forcing their clients to pay for the fast option in order to minimize costs.