Timely renewal of passports has suddenly become like winning the lottery for Bangladeshi migrants in Oman.
Frustration is growing among Bangladeshi expatriates as thousands of workers are not getting their passports renewed on time.
Amid such a situation, pressure is growing on the Bangladesh embassy in Oman and the money exchange firms tasked with the job.
Slow supply of passports from Dhaka are blamed for the crisis. However, the Bangladesh embassy and the Department of Immigration and Passports (DIP) hoped the crisis will be over in a month.
According to expatriates, the passport crisis in Oman has been prevailing for the last six to seven months, causing hardships for them. Failing to renew passports, they cannot return home, get their emergency works done, and renew their visa, Akama (work permit) or Resident Permit Card, ATM card, and driving licence.
Expatriates said amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the necessity for a resident card has increased manifold to avail medical, educational and various other services, and also to avoid legal troubles. But they are in a fix as the renewal of passport is delayed.
Md Parsul Alam, a Bangladeshi sales worker in Salala, said a money exchange firm in the last three months told him time and again that his passport was under printing process.
But neither the firm nor the embassy could tell when it would be printed, Parsul said over the phone.
"Without my passport, I cannot travel to Bangladesh. I even cannot withdraw my salary abroad. My salary is deposited into a bank account and it can only be withdrawn using my ATM card. The passport is required to renew my expired ATM card," he told this correspondent recently.
He completed filing the application for renewing the passport through the money exchange firm, approved by the Bangladesh embassy, six months ago.
Another Bangladeshi worker in Sohar, Mehedi Hasan, cannot renew his visa and Akama as he has yet to get his passport renewed.
"I have been here for two months without a visa, meaning I am an undocumented migrant now. It is becoming difficult for me to avail the usual benefits as an expatriate," he lamented.
Although there are concessions due to the pandemic, a monthly penalty is applicable if the Akama is not renewed. However, the big problem is Omani companies are developing a negative attitude towards Bangladeshi workers due to this delay, said Mohammad Yasin Chowdhury, president of Chattogram Samity in Oman.
If the visas are not renewed in time, the employer companies have to give an explanation to the labour department and in some cases they get blacklisted, he said.
Yasin Chowdhury, who availed the NRB-CIP status by sending the highest amount of remittances to the country, said: "Expatriates are frustrated over an uncertain future due to the pandemic and the passport crisis aggravated their sufferings."
It is hard to explain the difficulties they are facing every day, he said.
According to the latest data from the Oman government, Bangladeshis are the largest expatriate community in the country with about 5.47 lakh workers. The total number of Bangladeshis in Oman is over 7 lakh as there are also family members and workers without Akama.
The passport section under a counselor at the Bangladesh embassy in Muscat provides services to expatriates. They receive applications for renewal or new passport and send those to the DIP in Dhaka.
The passports are distributed among the applicants once those are sent to Muscat. However, there is no previous record of such a long delay.
Expatriates said they could usually obtain a passport within 45 days, but during the pandemic the time almost doubled.
However, availing the service has become much easier as two Bangladeshi money exchange firms were tasked with receiving applications and distributing passports. But in November last year, the distribution of passports almost came to a halt and the delay reached its peak in February-March this year.
Money exchange firm sources said up to 10,000 passports used to be distributed per month previously, but the figure has now come down to between 1,000 and 1,200.
Iftekher Hasan Chowdhury, CEO of Golf Overseas Exchange, said being given the responsibility in June last year, they were providing services to expatriates in coordination with the passport section of the Bangladesh embassy amid the pandemic.
An unexpected backlog of passport renewal applications grew at the end of last year and it became even more complicated early this year, he said.
Iftekher also said they faced embarrassment after failing to deliver passports to service seekers on time.
Abu Sayeed, counselor (passport) at the Bangladesh embassy, said about 30,000 passports were stuck in Dhaka for printing in March. "We repeatedly reminded the DIP of the job, but it failed to issue passports on time due to a shortage of MRP booklets."
He said Bangladesh Ambassador in Oman Mizanur Rahman took an initiative to resolve the crisis by communicating with the DIP through sending letters and over the phone.
"The crisis is easing with an increased supply of passports over the last two weeks. Meantime, we have received 10,000 passports and started distributing those quickly."
Another 20,000 passports are under printing process in Dhaka, Sayeed added.
He hoped the passport services would be normal within this month if there is no new obstacle to the process due to the worsening pandemic situation.
Saidul Islam, director (passport and justice) of the DIP, said expatriates are being given top priority.
"Even during the difficult times of pandemic last year, we continued our regular activities only for expatriates."
He said there was a temporary crisis in the distribution of MRPs at the end of last year and beginning of this year due to systematic and tactical issues which arose over entering the e-passport era.
"The crisis is being resolved and the supply of passports to the foreign missions in Oman and other countries is becoming normal gradually."
Yasin Chowdhury said it is unlikely that all applicants would get their passports this month if the distribution went on at current pace.
He said the DIP should make special arrangements to print passports quickly and send those to Oman to keep the effects of the crisis within tolerable limits.
[The writer is a freelance journalist.]