The official Facebook account of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) brims with complaints about the agency’s passport services.
The grumbling there is just a vague picture of the problem that the department has faced, and continues to face—a serious shortage of passports.
The passport backlog topped 100,000 when the electronic passport (ePassport) system currently in place bogged down in February this year. The glitch held back the processing of some 12,000 passport applications received every day.
“The backlog started way back in February when we had technical problems with our passporting system because this is a six-year-old system. We had this since 2009, so it is already experiencing technological obsolescence,” Assistant Secretary Frank Cimafranca of the DFA’s Office of Consular Affairs (DFA-OCA) told reporters.
“Parts of the system are already breaking down. Here and there, we are doing repairs to the system to keep it running. Since then, we had not been able to recover. We cannot keep up with the demand [for passports],” he said.
By mid-June, the backlog was reduced to 70,000 and the department was swamped with complaints. It was at this time that the department finally decided to put measures in place.
It entered into an agreement with APO Production Unit Inc., one of the government’s three accredited printers. APO is the same printer that the department will partner with in the new passport system that is being proposed for budget approval in Congress.
Once the budget is approved, that system will take over the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ (BSP) duties by the middle of next year, Cimafranca said.
The BSP is the DFA’s current partner in the printing of passports. It produces about 10,000 to 11,000 passports a day while the APO printing plant in Batangas churns out about 6,000 to 7,000 passports daily.
The early team up with APO was lauded as the solution to the passport backlog. Cimafranca said the backlog was greatly reduced to 42,000 two weeks ago.
Barring other disruptions, the delays will be cleared by September, the official said.
But the question remains: Why did the department have to wait for the technology to break down before activating measures that would have prevented the backlog?
Cimafranca said putting in place a new passport system is “complicated.”
“It takes time. If you change the system, you change almost everything. You change the hardware. We will no longer use the old machines, and they should be using new machines.”
He added that the DFA decided to go with APO because it is “fully automated,” unlike the current system that still employs different personnel for operations, personalization and lamination.
The current system is “labor intensive,” Cimafranca said.
This is not the first time the DFA encountered passport problems. When the ePassport system started in 2009, the agency faced questions on its bidding process, the supplier of passbooks, the security features as well as its hotline for appointments.
The same problems may again be encountered since this early, issues are being raised against the picking of APO as the DFA’s partner.
Cimafranca claimed that APO was the only company willing to enter into a partnership with the department for its new passport system because the two other accredited printers– BSP and the National Printing Office–refused to participate in the new project.
But a ranking official of the department told The Manila Times that APO may not be capable to print passports because it had to allegedly outsource some of the production work to a foreign firm.
Meanwhile, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are in limbo over their passport needs.
Emmanuel Geslani, a recruitment expert, asked the DFA to make a priority the issuance of passports to OFWs.
He said the deployment of newly hired workers is being affected because their passports are not being released on time.
To address the problem of passport renewals, especially for those with travel plans, the DFA authorized all its consular posts here and abroad to extend the validity of old passports.
Applicants are advised to call the department’s hotline at (02) 737-1000 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday. The appointment system is also accessible through the department’s website at www.passport.com.ph.
Applicants can choose from any of the department’s consular branches–the main branch at Asean Business Park in Macapagal Boulevard in Paranaque City (Metro Manila) or any of the mall-based satellite offices at SM City Manila, Robinsons Galleria, SM Megamall, Metro Alabang and Ali Mall.