In the next 100 days, the Duterte administration can make good on its promise to extend the validity of Philippine passports to 10 years. It can and should also cut the appointment time that now reaches up to 30 days and the releasing time that takes from 45 days to 60 days in several diplomatic posts.
Based on my research, other countries have been able to process passports in a matter of hours, while some are assured of obtaining passports in a span of two weeks. Our overseas workers in Kuala Lumpur cannot help but compare how Malaysian nationals are able to simply wait for their passports, which are released on the same day of application. In Singapore, a passport applicant has several options, including getting his or her passport from the nearest post office.
Surely, given the size of our overseas population, reducing the number of days just to get an appointment is a matter of paramount concern. Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr. said his office is looking into how to best improve the current system, which requires the printing of passports to be done somewhere in the province of Batangas.
A friend of mine who is an expert on high-level security printing and IT matters, informed me that it is possible to drastically cut the processing time, including the waiting time for appointments, to make our passport at par with that of First World economies, at a much lesser cost than the government is spending. If this is true, then the Duterte administration has a low-hanging fruit right at its fingertips that can easily be converted into a historic achievement.
As an OFW advocate, I participated in a public hearing conducted by the Senate committee on foreign relations chaired by Senator Alan Peter Cayetano. Senators Joel Villanueva and Cynthia Villar were also present.
During that hearing, DFA Secretary Yasay and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd expressed full support to the proposed 10-year validity of the Philippine passport. The Department of Social Welfare and Development raised no objections. DSWD Undersecretary Vilma Cabrera, however, stressed the need to ensure that changes in the physical appearances of minors are taken into account. The Villar bill on passport reforms does exactly this, limiting the grant of 10-year passports to adults and maintaining the five-year passports for minors.
As president of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, I was able to enumerate some of the concerns raised by our overseas Filipino workers regarding their experiences in applying for passports abroad.
A very simple, yet recurring, complaint was the lack of photocopying machines in our embassies for public use. An OFW based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia said that she had to walk a long way to look for a Xerox machine because there was none in the embassy and she had to photocopy some documents required by the consular office. The same complaint was shared by an OFW in Milan, Italy and another OFW in Oman. Upon hearing these complaints, the senators were quite sympathetic. Senators Cayetano and Villar stressed the need for the DFA and DOLE to include such equipment in their budgetary requests because our modern-day heroes deserve nothing less.
Yet another request was to increase the number of pages in the passport. A highly skilled worker told me that his passport ran out of pages by the second year of his contract because his work covers the entire Middle East. Seafarers are faced with similar dilemmas. If we were to migrate to using passports that are good for 10 years then certainly the current 44 pages that every Philippine passport contains would be insufficient.
This week, the Senate foreign relations committee will hold its second hearing on passport reforms. Senator Cayetano also announced the creation of a technical working group (TWG) that would look into the more technical details leading to the implementation of the 10-year passport validity law. Both the DFA and the DoLE will form part of the TWG.
Unfortunately, the Senate referred the matter regarding the issuance of Philippine passports to Indonesian nationals to its blue ribbon committee. It would have been more efficient to discuss such anomalous transactions in conjunction with passport reforms. The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos did inform the Senate foreign relations committee of its position that the Hajj passports should be replaced with regular passports.
In the next 100 days, the Duterte administration can hand over a simple yet meaningful gift to the nation: a world-class Philippine passport, more efficiently produced, with more pages and a 10-year validity period.
Let’s hope that Congress will hold its own hearings on passport reforms to accelerate the passage of a law extending the life of our passports to 10 years.