Visiting the Immigration Department in any part of the country has now become a hassle for many Belizeans. The painstaking process of applying or renewing a passport is described as being extremely sluggish and hellish. The long lines outside of the offices are discouraging for many. According to the Ministry of Immigration, the issues stem from the use of an outdated system. The frustrating process has only been exacerbated by an increase in passport renewals and applications since the reopening of land borders. According to CEO in the Ministry, Dr. Gilroy Middleton, the government’s new Electronic Passport Issuance and Control System (ePICS), which is expected to be launched later this year, will resolve many of the long standing issues. But, until then Dr. Middleton says there isn’t an interim system that can be used to alleviate the passport problems affecting many Belizeans both at home and abroad.
Dr.Gilryo Middleton, CEO, Ministry of Immigration: “This system should have been changed ten years ago. It’s outdated, the software is obsolete, the hardware is obsolete. We have IT managers looking on ebay to get hardware and literally when a camera goes bad the system goes. In terms of the interim system there is no interim system we’ll have to use the system we have until mid-late October where the new electronic passport system comes onboard. Also we’ve been struggling in that and also we know that a lot of people have had their passports when they apply the due date to get it it has always been pushed back since the opening of the borders. In the past we’ve done some twenty thousand passports per year. As of today we’ve already done twenty thousand for this year so the demand has actually doubled. It seems as if everyone’s passport expired during the closure. So we’ve been struggling from that end and also because the system is old the Punta Gorda system is non functional, the Dangriga system is nonfunctional, the Orange Walk system is nonfunctional so we’re between Corozal, Belize City and Belmopan. So in theory we’re hoping that once we get the new passport systems in all these locations that this demand will be averaged out across all locations. And I would like to address an issue where they’re saying that two or one person lines up cones in our main office in Belmopan. The lines people come from let’s say from four in the morning I’m told the cones have nothing to do with immigration we’re not outside our compound managing the cones but what I can tell you if somebody puts a cone in front of me I would never stand behind a cone so I don’t know why individuals are standing behind ten cones and then saying the Belmopan City Council is responsible, the police department is responsible, and the immigration ministry is responsible. So the gates would be open around six and individuals would come in, tickets would be issued around seven thirty. WIth the new system we’re also looking at online appointments and then the second phase January we’re looking at online applications in terms of renewals and online payments so that’s where we’re going.”
Dr. Middleton added that another issue that is plaguing the department is a lack of human resources. According to the CEO, the immigration department is understaffed and workers are overwhelmed with the amount of work they are tasked with.
Dr.Gilryo Middleton, CEO, Ministry of Immigration: “Most government ministries are understaffed. We’re looking at two hundred twenty individuals. One hundred twenty would be the uniformed officers at the borders and our various offices, the Department of Nationality and Passport has no more than fifty individuals. So we’re working with public service to increase that. In the simplest sense that department has one person in each out district office, by October we need minimum of three persons to simply manage the passport system. So again the ministry was separated specifically the immigration part and border management and immigration services received a large number of the employees. Why ? Because the passport system wasn’t working. Why put three people out district when the system isn’t working and individuals will be coming to Belmopan any way ? So that was apart from the structural issues, the assistant director not being there, the legal officer not being there. I’ve read documents where they recommended four assistant directors for border management and immigration services while we only have one. So we’ve been working with public service, Ministry of Finance in terms of beefing up these numbers. In November the Cabinet approved for six individuals to be hired to work at the Philip Goldson International airport. Why ? A large number of tourists coming in so we could literally say that for each department. So the fact is like many other government ministries we don’t have enough human resources and that’s where I come in. I have to motivate the administrative officers and get everyone on the same track to bring this together.”
Dr. Middleton added that come September the Immigration Department will be shutting down its current system in order to transition into the use of its (ePICs) system, which is being developed by the Canadian Bank Note company.