At Large

Flimsy passports and national pride

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A passport is not just a travel document, it is the highest identity form for an individual, honored and respected wherever and whenever it is presented. Provided, that is, the passport is recognized as authentic, and all doubts about its provenance and legitimacy are erased.

There was a time—and I suspect it is still the case with some foreign governments or immigration officials—when a Philippine passport was looked on with suspicion and doubt. True, this may have been due to the propensity of many Filipinos to seek illegal entry to their countries of destination (thus the coining of the term “TNT” or tago nang tago, “always in hiding,” to refer to illegals), but part of the problem may also be traced to widespread doubts about the authenticity of Philippine travel documents, starting with our passports.

Reforms instituted here, and the worldwide use of “machine-readable” passports with computer chips inserted in them have since led to the easing of doubts about the authenticity of Philippine passports, making international travel, especially for our millions of overseas workers, safer and less stressful. And yet the situation regarding the production of Philippine passports, including a reported shortage of not just passports but even visa stamps, brings into question the provenance, quality and security of our passports. This is not just a matter of quality control but more so of national pride. I’m not kidding. A passport is not just a form of individual identification, it stands as a symbol of one’s country. And if passports from the Philippines are deemed untrustworthy or of dubious provenance, then what does that say about our country?

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Recently, news emerged about alleged (since acknowledged by the Department of Foreign Affairs) defects in the new “e-passports” being issued by the Office of Consular Affairs and jointly manufactured by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and the winning contractor, a firm called Oberthur Philippines.

DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez was quoted as saying that these offices “are well aware of the issue” and are “taking steps to address it.”

Overseas workers and even business travelers had been complaining that when local and foreign immigration officers pull out Philippine e-passports from their plastic jackets (apparently the better to scan them), the passports often come apart.

Many returning Filipino workers, said an immigration agent, find that their passports are so flimsy that the stitching gives way and the pages loosen. A Chinese-Filipino businessman also reported that when a Hong Kong immigration officer pulled out his new passport from its jacket, “the pages became loose in the hands of the immigration officer, with some [pages] spilling on the floor.”

When this happens, it subjects the traveler not just to embarrassment or inconvenience but, more seriously, to suspicions that he or she is using a “fake” document. Such suspicions may result in the traveler being asked to step out of the line to be interrogated in private—certainly a frightening experience even for one secure in the thought that he or she is traveling with a perfectly valid and authentic passport.

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In response to such complaints, all the DFA can say is that these are “isolated” and “random” incidents.

Hernandez added that “to rectify the situation, the BSP production unit has been applying spine reinforcement tape, which secures the stitching of the [e-passport] cover to the inside pages of the (document), thus making it difficult to detach unless there are attempts to deliberately remove the same.”

Excuse me, but the statement—and the action—is like applying Band Aid to a gaping wound. I would think that the DFA would put more importance to the integrity of our passports, and would be more concerned about reports on the flimsy travel documents. For starters, it could go back to its favored supplier and demand better-quality passports. For now, all Hernandez can say is that the defective e-passports will be replaced by the Office of Consular Affairs, although he couldn’t say whether the passports will be replaced for free or would still come with the rather steep P1,200 fee.

Other officials would rather blame the plastic covers (which are sold by vendors right outside the DFA’s passport offices) which have a tendency, they said, to stick to the passport covers, so that when the immigration officer tries to scan it, the loose binding gives way.

I find it interesting that instead of assuring the public, especially overseas workers, that the DFA will look into the problem and study ways to assure the integrity and durability of our passports, and maybe even change suppliers, our foreign affairs officials blame instead the passport users (supposedly for handling their passports less than gently), and the innocent plastic covers.

* * *

The situation gets curiouser and curiouser, indeed.

The previously mentioned Oberthur (supposedly owned by the Ocier family of the “gray market” Binondo Central Bank fame) has been supplying e-covers for the BSP (which was approached by the DFA) for the past four years at a cost of $5 apiece. In a recent tender of the BSP last February, Oberthur won the bid again when it undercut all other bidders and cited a price of $2.50 per passport.

So it seems that Oberthur has been making a 50-percent profit for every passport all these years! This comes to a total of $10 million a year, at an estimate of 10,000 passports a year at P1,000 each.

Curious minds ask: Why has Oberthur supplied the e-covers at double the price all these years—and been allowed to do so by government officials? Is there a conspiracy here?

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