People at the gate of the Immigration & Citizenship Services to get passports.

Long queues and chaotic scenes are common sites on Churchill Avenue to Zambia Road.

Prospective travellers waiting in line either to renew their passports or apply for a new one at the Immigration & Citizenship Service take a major share of the crowd.

Those from remote areas apply for passports at the internet cafes nearby while business is booming for brokers outside the gates who offer to schedule application and delivery dates closer with up to 600 Br service fee.

Frustration clouds the faces of many, as the long waitlist and a host of prerequisites to get service prevailed.

A 25-year-old Eleni Solomon is one of the applicants waiting in the long line to enter the Immigration compound. She has been working as a graphic designer for the past couple of years, after dropping out of Bahir Dar University as a second-year student.

A stroke of luck to revive her long-lost dream happened when the non-governmental organisation she works at chose her to pursue her undergraduate study abroad.

She applied for a passport in December right after becoming eligible for the computer science program in Canada.

"They told me to come back in April," she said.

She was able to submit her credentials and biometrics then and was told to get her passport two months later from one of the Ethio Post branches.

Meanwhile, the University sent alerts to prepare documents and apply for a visa by the end of August lurking around the corner. But there was no sign of her passport.

Empty halls of Ethio Post as the inflow dries up.

"I don't know what to do," said Eleni with a desperate tone while her eyes filled with tears thinking of the opportunity that is about to pass her by.

She has her acceptance letter inside a brown envelope with hopes of convincing the officer to qualify to receive an urgent service.

Ethiopians applying for passport services are forced to postpone or cancel their travel plans with a waitlist of three months at the Immigration & Citizenship Service. However, getting on the waitlist after paying 2,000 Br for 32-page and 4,000 Br for 64-page passports does not guarantee service despite the ease of application on the digital platform.

The emergency passport issuance provided within five days for 5,000 Br and two days for 6,500 Br was partially banned since the end of March, limiting the service to specific areas determined by officers.

The qualified groups include citizens in need of medical treatment abroad with approved letters from a medical board, applicants who won the DV lottery, public employees in need of urgent travel and students accepted for postgraduate and doctoral degrees.

Between 800 to 1,500 people were served daily at the Ethio Post, the designated institution to roll out delivered booklets to individuals since 2017. The delivery number shows a steady decline with 425,540 passports delivered at Ethio Post in the ended fiscal year, while the figure stood relatively higher at 491,673 in the previous year.

Ethio Post has not received regular passports from the suppliers starting around the same time urgent service was partially restricted.

"A couple of urgent booklets come once in a blue moon," said Sintayehu Tadesse, chief marketing officer.

Sintayehu said applicants with lower digital literacy are exposed to unfair payments while their contact information is missed with passport delivery text messages sent by Ethio Post reaching a dead end.

He said Ethio Post officials are under negotiation with their counterparts at the Immigration Service to take over the application service.

"It will be provided for a lower price," he said.

Officials at the Immigration & Citizenship Service confirmed the shortage of booklets in stock which are mainly printed in France. They indicate the limitation to delivery is exacerbated by the protracted foreign currency.

An industry insider who strongly suggests remaining anonymous told Fortune, the problem incepted during the pandemic when the travel and passport issuance demand was nearly null which in turn created a lax attitude to engage with suppliers.

The source believes as international travel began getting back to normal the demand for services increased, in turn creating a backlog. With the current unemployment rate and conflicts erupting in parts of the country, the expert believes prompt services should be provided let alone freeze it all together.

The Immigration & Citizenship Services, which has been a major source of frustration for both locals and non-nationals, went through reforms two weeks ago that brought Selamawit Dawit to the front replacing Biruhtesfa Mulugeta.

She headed the Ethiopian Diaspora Agency and was the State Minister for Tourism before assuming the current position. The deputies Fraol Tafa and Tameru Genbeton were replaced by Gosa Demissie and Bikila Mezgebu.

The former officials indicate the problem started when a service backlog during the pandemic created delays in delivery leading to the federal government’s involvement as the plight intensified.

Selamawit's first role as the Director General was compounded with a journey abroad with hopes of addressing the contractual issues with international suppliers. Officials indicated that there might be a bone to chew on upon her return, opting to remain tight-lipped in the meantime.

Passports are a means of travelling to other countries that do not require entry visas from Ethiopia or process on arrival.

A hopeful citizen looking forward to getting back in business following the breeze of peace, Haddish GebreSelase made his way from Meqelle City, Tigray Regional State, hoping to revamp his cosmetics business which was dwarfed during wartime.

A breadwinner for a family of four, he pooled half a million Birr from relatives and friends. Haddish came to the capital crossing over 934Km to check for his status for the third time since he applied online to renew his passport five months ago.

He has given up on the waitlist. But he is hoping to change his status to urgent pleading with authorities.

"I need to start making a living," said Haddish.

Investment consultants believe authorities need to eye alternative means to address the foreign currency issue while maintaining the services.

Million Kibret, an investment consultant at BDO Consulting argues that Immigration Service stands at an advantageous ground when it comes to accessing forex which might need twigging a policy.

He observes the relatively affordable fees for urgent services added to the backlog with many individuals resorting to using expressways. While Million understands passport is a matter of national security issue that cannot be privatised, he suggests providing service for those with access to forex such as exporters will ease the burden while impacting the economy.

The halls inside the Immigration & Citizenship Service are filled with applicants who manage to pass the long lines and enter the compound. Officers are in every corner trying to keep order while people try to make their case and become eligible for urgent service.

It did not seem to work for Eleni who left the compound on the edge of giving up on her dreams of becoming a computer science graduate once more.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 12,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1215]

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