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How $120 beats the passport blues

How $120 beats the passport blues

F OR those who would rather not wait for months after applying for a passport to be issued one, there is an easy way out. For $120, a passport will be available in five days, and for $200 in a single day, according to an investigation by the Post.

In the last few months, waiting periods for the issuing of passports have increased drastically, according to applicants at the passport office near Regent College in the capital.

Applicants, including this reporter, have had to wait a minimum of 75 days to get the passports after a legal application has been filed with a $15 fee.

The number of passport applications now stand at about 3,000 every month, and the number has increased since the Ministry of Interior took over the work of issuing passports from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Oct 11 last year, according to Theng Sem, the director of the passport office.

This Post reporter overheard an official working in the passport office talking to a man who wanted to have passports made quickly. "Don't worry about it," the official told the man confidently, "We will have the passport issued in ten days, if you are ready to pay me a big tip."

Further inquiry by the Post revealed that the man was not looking for a passport for himself, but was a middleman acting for someone else. This is against the rules because the applicant is supposed to present himself or herself at the office so that photo identities can be checked.

This reporter saw the middleman carrying photographs of a woman and a child who were wearing what looked like burquas - the veils worn by Muslim women - which are not worn by Cambodian Cham Muslims.

On being asked, the man claimed they were "true Cambodians who only follow the Malaysian religion."

Pressed further, he admitted they were not Cham Muslims. The official he was dealing with asked him to come back with another photograph of the woman, without the veil.

This Post reporter then pretended to be a passport applicant looking for a quick way out and asked a guard who was looking after motorbikes close to the passport office what he should do if he required a passport urgently.

The guard himself turned out to be a middleman. "Don't bother. Just give me $120 and come back here after five days to get your passport.

"If your friend wants to have his passport made quickly, come to meet me. He doesn't need to do anything, just go back and wait for his passport to be ready."

Another official working in the passport office told the Post on condition of anonymity: "We can manage to get your passport in just one day if you are willing to spend $200.

"We have already signed blank passports without photographs. Just give me your photo and fill in your application form, then you will get it."

Theng Sem also admitted that he himself was sometimes forced to issue passports on short notice because of pressure from senior officials in the Ministry of Interior.

He said that people who required passports to go abroad immediately, such as those who were ill and required treatment, or were invited to travel or study abroad were not willing to wait for months, were spurring the illegal passport trade.

But he stoutly defended his staff against any allegations of corruption, despite the fact that it would be impossible for touts and agents to obtain blank signed passports without the connivance of staff at the passport office.

"I don't believe that my staff would accept $120 as a bribe to issue passports quickly, but I believe outsiders do," he said, adding: "Earlier people used to change the photo, but my staff don't dare do that, perhaps others do."

Sem also claimed he would crack down on any corruption when new passports are issued in early November.

Theng Sem said the new passports, being printed in England, would bear the name Kingdom of Cambodia, replacing the earlier People's Republic of Kampuchea.

He said the Ministry of Interior was preoccupied with re-integrating the Funcinpec, CPP and BLDP police forces and in restructuring administration, and changes in issuing passports were delayed.

Sem also expressed fears that passports would have to be examined strictly by the police to ensure that non-Cambodian nationals did not obtain them.

"There are some foreigners who carry Cambodian passports, this is because we do not have adequate police in the passport office," he said. But added that only one such person had been caught at Pochentong airport.

The problem could increase in the coming months, because all old passports, whatever their expiry dates, will become invalid at the end of January next year.

With many thousands of different passports, including those of the People's Republic of Kampuchea, in circulation, there will be a rush to obtain the new passports from early November, which will mean even more business for the touts.

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