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Crisis looms over travel documents

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MASERU — There is likely to be chaos at the Passport Office on Tuesday when thousands of Basotho who have returned home from South Africa for Easter try to get temporary travel documents.

They will not get them, the Sunday Express can reveal.

Thousands of Basotho — the majority of them migrant labourers — are expected to swarm the Passport Office on Tuesday for temporary travel documents to avoid paying hefty fines they incurred after they overstayed in South Africa.

Many of the returnees have been fined between M1 500 and M3 000 by the South African department of immigration for having overstayed in the neighbouring country.

Their passports were endorsed so that they pay the fines before re-entering South Africa.

To avoid paying these fines most people have resorted to applying for temporary travel documents which they use to re-enter South Africa.

But this time that trick will not work because the Passport Office will not be issuing temporary travel documents when it reopens on Tuesday.

Investigations by this paper have revealed the Passport Office has not received the documents from Government Printers, the only authorised printer and supplier of the temporary travel documents.

“There will be a crisis on Tuesday,” said an official in the Passport Office who refused to be named.

“They (Government Printers) have told us that they don’t have these temporary travel documents so we will not be able to issue them,” he said.

A top source at Government Printers said “serious cases of corruption have forced us to suspend the printing of temporary travel documents”.

“It might take time before we start printing them again,” he said.

“There are serious management issues here that have to be sorted out first.”

Government Printers falls under the Law Office which is controlled by the Attorney-General’s Office.

To avoid paying the fines for overstaying in South Africa most Basotho stop using their endorsed passports and apply for temporary travel documents which are free.

They take advantage of the weak security systems at the Passport Office to apply for the documents using false names.

Sometimes they use their real names but change their dates of birth to avoid detection at the South African borders.

Lesotho does not have a biometric system which can detect multiple passport and temporary travel document applicants through fingerprints.

So instead of paying the fines most people simply get new travel documents.

The source at the Passport Services Department said they “had battled over the past week to find a solution to the impending crisis but by Thursday we had lost hope”.

“We will just have to tell these people that we are not in a position to issue these documents,” he added.

It is reliably understood the director of the Passport Services Department, Sello Mokoena, last week alerted Home Affairs principal secretary Lefa Mokotjo about the looming crisis.

Mokotjo is said to have discussed the matter with Attorney-General Tsokolo Makhethe who, sources said, promised to talk to the management at Government Printers to assist the Passport Services Department with the documents.

Yet by close of business on Thursday the Passport Office had not received anything from the printers.

Mokoena, when contacted for comment, refused to go into details but confirmed there was likely to be a problem.

“People should be patient because we are still trying to straighten things here,” Mokoena told the Sunday Express on Friday.

This issue of temporary travel documents, Mokoena said, was beyond the control of the Passport Services Department.

“We don’t print. It’s a completely different department that deals with the printing,” he said.

Most of the migrant labourers are caught between a rock and a hard place.

If the problem is not resolved quickly it means most of them are unlikely to go back to South Africa unless they exit through illegal points or pay the hefty fines.

They might lose their jobs.

About 50 000 Basotho are employed in South African mines.

Their contribution to Lesotho’s economy is huge with most of them supporting families left at home.

But the visiting Basotho are not the only ones who will battle to get the travel documents.

Their predicament only makes it more difficult for other thousands who have been braving long queues at the Passport Office for weeks but with no luck.

It takes up to three years of waiting to get a passport in Lesotho.

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