FOREIGN Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano is back from Russia with 10 signed agreements covering areas of cooperation in the fields of agriculture, defense, humanitarian issues, industry, nuclear energy, transportation, trade and tourism between the Philippines and Russia.
What was lacking is the memo on his desk that contains the details of what, how and when the Philippines’ passport processing will improve. The foreign secretary had said he wanted to see that memo when he returns from Russia.
Before his trip to the land of RussPutin, Cayetano visited the passport processing center and “discovered” the detestable fact that the long lines of passport applicants is preceded by an even longer wait to get an appointment date online. Immediately, Cayetano announced his intention to remove the current online passport appointment system.
Cayetano said he had instructed the Department of Foreign Affairs officials concerned that he wanted a memo on how to replace the online appointment system with one that works.
Why system is not working
The passport application online was devised to ease the pain and costs of going to a DFA passport processing center virtually before midnight just to ensure one’s place in the long queues. The US Embassy changed the walk-in-system decades before to the current online visa appointment – and it works just fine.
On June 17, 2016, APO Productions had been in charge of the DFA passport appointment system. A specific website was created —https://www.passport.gov.ph/ —for those wishing to get an appointment date to personally appear at a DFA passport processing center.
It did not take long for fixers to hijack the system.
A year after APO’s designation as the nnit in charge, passport applicants – OFWs in particular – find it very difficult to get an early appointment. OFWs must have passports to apply for an overseas job. No passport, no go.
I tried checking the available passport dates for SM Megamall and could not find available dates until October – fourm months from now! So I tried the other DFA processing centers away from Metro Manila: Angeles, Baguio, General Santos, Tacloban.
DFA Angeles had July openings; Tacloban had June dates immediately available from 8 a.m. If you were an applicant from Metro Manila, you have to take a flight to Tacloban to complete processing of your passport and pay extra for the delivery since it would have to be delivered from Leyte.
Back in Luzon, fixers jammed the appointment system, reserving and buying blocks of appointment slots. Then the fixers turn around and sell the earlier appointment dates to applicants who need to travel soonest. The price goes up from the later to the earliest dates.
The most common victims? OFWs because they have approved contracts and visas that they need to use, otherwise, they could lose their jobs.
Who can fix the fixers?
Despite the signs in government offices warning applicants to stay away from fixers, these processing leeches flourish on the blood of OFWs and millions of applicants. Obviously, warning signs are not enough. And the continued operation of these fixers apparently goes on under the noses of government watchdogs even as blood money goes under the table and overflows in the pockets or drawers of conniving employees.
APO Production Unit, was reported to have discovered and ”foiled the lucrative scam of fixers who has reserved up to 450 slots for passport applicants which they sell at P5,000 each for those in desperate need of travel documents.”
The amount goes up depending on the applicant’s need for an earlier date. Subsequently, fixers, conniving government employees and official-protectors can earn more than P2.5 million by blocking passport application slots.
Walk in, don’t log on
Cayetano said he had “instructed his transition team and officials of the DFA passport division to prepare a memorandum containing reforms, when and how these will be implemented.”
In sum, what Cayetano wants is: the scuttling of the present appointment system, and for applicants to walk in to apply for passports; passports have to be delivered in a few days; use the postal service system to apply for passports, like in the US; more machines to produce passports with security features; more employees (casual) to meet the increased demand from walk-in applicants; additional funds from the budget department; that his salary be used while waiting for funds from the budget department.
The DFA explains that a confirmed appointment is required for all applicants except for senior citizens, infants and minors below one year old, visibly pregnant women, and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). OFWs must present sufficient proof such as a valid employment contract or OEC.
The website —https://www.dfa.gov.ph/ —says the passport application is “easy!” How easy? The illustration (below) shows the easy “simple steps:”Section 6 of the Philippine Constitution guarantees the Filipino citizens “liberty of abode…and the right to travel.” Such right may be limited only “in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health, as may be provided by law.”
Are we to expect a memo soon – after Secretary Cayetano’s return from Russia? Now or not yet?