By Robyn Adderley
Bahamas Information Services
FREEPORT, Grand Bahama — Receiving your passport is now at a 12-week wait period due to an overwhelming demand, said Minister responsible, the Hon. Fred Mitchell, during a press conference at Bahamas Information Services on Friday.
The Minister addressed the concerns in Grand Bahama pertaining to passport delays and the new expediting fee of $200.
The fee for a passport remains at $50, and Minister Mitchell advised residents that they should plan their trips in advance due to the 12 week processing delay. “That is longer, certainly, than we would have liked because it’s up from six weeks. Just last year, we were trying to do six weeks, but there’s been an unusual demand for passports.”
There is normally a demand during the summer period, coupled with the fact that the November 15, 2015 deadline is approaching when handwritten passports will no longer be accepted at the boarder for entrance to another country.
Additionally, said the Minister, passports of minors have a five-year turnover, and so this added to the other factors, has increased the delay period.
“Unfortunately, there are too many horror stories about delays and the customer service elements or lack thereof in the Passport Office. I have simply been trying to speak to the issue. I spent part of my day, usually every day, at the Passport Office just trying to see that we are on top of the issues connected thereto.”
If a person is in need of a passport within 48 hours, that is when the $200 fee can be paid. “The passport fee has not gone up to $200, that’s not the case. The fee for a passport is $50 but if you require it within 48 hours, there is an additional fee of $200.”
The Minister further stated that the fee system was implemented because people would have four or five people travelling, get to the airport and one passport has expired. All tickets, hotel, transportation have been paid for, and one person in the family has an expired passport.
He advised, when planning a trip, in addition to purchasing the tickets and paying for the hotels, passports should also be checked to ensure validity.
It is also important to note, he said, that there is a need for respect for the staff at the Passport Office. Even though you may be angry and frustrated, he said, it is not a reason to be disrespectful to the staff, nor is it a reason for the staff to be disrespectful to the public. “It is a difficult situation and we are trying to do the best we can.”
Recent permission from the Ministry of Finance to start working overtime may help with the backlog.
With a backlog of 1,500 passports for Grand Bahama, the Minister was asked if a printing machine on the island would alleviate the problem, Minister Mitchell explained that printing the passport is not the problem. There is a resource problem, along with a problem of manpower and equipment.
It has been announced that a new $18M border management system is currently being worked on. The software is being designed now.
Right now, there is no digitized system in The Bahamas. Applications are filled out, the forms are taken to the Passport Office. Forms are then scanned and put into computers: this is what is being addressed, and many of the issues and complaints will be dealt with.
The Minister explained that when the system was put in place, he was advised that there should only be one printing centre so that there is more control for security reasons.
“The problem now is approval to print the passport, and you need people to know who are citizens of The Bahamas. Citizenship of The Bahamas is a very complicated thing to decide. And this has a lot of people frustrated as well. Because of the way the laws are structured, sometimes you have to go back to the great grandmother to determine if you are a Bahamian citizen or not.
He said that as literate as The Bahamas is, many people did not bother to get birth certificates and as a result, they have to get an affidavit. Some people may have gotten an affidavit before, but did not register it.
In some cases, they use one name but their documents have another and the Passport Office insists that the names must match, he said, “Remember, the passport is the document that identifies who you are.” This is cause for frustration and delays, and staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have had to go in and assist.
“In Grand Bahama most of the approval is done right here and then it goes to Nassau for the final check. Now there is a backlog in terms of Grand Bahama. There is a bottleneck in that final check. I’m seeking to address that issue to see that that improves.”
Another difficult step is the scanning exercise, and this is currently being looked into.