MASERU — Hundreds of Basotho with old temporary travel documents have failed to leave the country legally after being turned away by immigration officials at all border posts.
The government of Lesotho last week announced it was phasing out the old travel documents because they were being forged by criminals who sold them to desperate travellers.
A new travel document will be available soon, the government said on Wednesday.
But in the meantime chaos has ensued as hundreds are turned away at the border posts.
Lesotho is totally surrounded by South Africa.
Immigration officials from the two countries confirmed to the Sunday Express on Friday that they had turned away hundreds of people who were using the old documents.
Security is tight at Maseru Bridge, Lesotho’s biggest border post, after the two governments deployed officers to stop people who wanted to cross using the temporary travel documents.
“We have been deployed here since Monday to stop people who use temporary travel documents from crossing the border,” said a Lesotho police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We have been told that the new temporary travel documents will only be issued after the World Cup.”
“We have asked many people to return since we started,” he added.
Most of the people who were turned away said they were not aware that the old travel documents had been phased out.
The queues at the Maseru Bridge border post have been longer than usual because immigration officials on the South African side have been insisting on inspecting every passport including for those with six-month permits.
A six-month permit allows a traveller to cross the border without getting his or her passport stamped first.
The permit is normally used by people who cross the border every day.
Travellers who were stranded after they were turned away told the Sunday Express they were not aware of the government’s decision to phase out the old temporary travel documents.
They complained that the government had given them too short a notice before phasing out the documents.
Tšepo Seitlheko from Semphetenyane in Maseru said he had no idea that the temporary travel documents were no longer accepted at the border post.
Seitlheko, employed as a taxi driver in Vereeniging, South Africa, was on his way back to work when he was told his travel document was no longer accepted.
He claimed he first heard of the news earlier on Friday when he was in a commuter omnibus on his way to the border post.
“I am frustrated. I might lose my job if I do not report for work before the end of the day,” Seitlheko said on Friday.
“I have called my boss but I do not think he will wait for me to come back, especially when I do not know how long it will take until I get my passport.
“It took me a long time to get this job. If I lose my job I will blame the Lesotho and South African governments.
“It was tough finding this job. I need it to look after my children and my siblings.”
Molebatsi Pesela was taken aback when a Lesotho immigration official told him he could not enter Lesotho using his temporary South African travel document.
Pesela said he had travelled from Gauteng and was on his way to a relative’s funeral in Berea when he was denied entry into Lesotho.
He said immigration officials told him he needed a valid South African passport to enter Lesotho.
“I was not aware that the permits were no longer used,” Pesela told the Sunday Express.
“I could not have wasted my money and time by travelling this far.
“It is unreasonable for the government to announce an issue of this importance without giving adequate notice.”
Senior police and immigration officers on the South African side of Maseru Bridge refused to comment when approached by the Sunday Express.
They said they were not allowed to speak to Lesotho media unless authorised by their head office in Pretoria.
Other South African officials who spoke to the Sunday Express on condition of anonymity said the plan was to monitor and limit the number of people who enter South Africa during the 2010 World Cup that kicks off on Friday.
They said the South African government was worried about the potential spike in criminal activities during the event.
The idea, they said, is that if every traveller has a passport it would be easier to monitor them.
Meanwhile, the decision to phase out the old travel documents has worsened the congestion at the new Passport Office.
Hundreds thronged the office on Friday after they were turned away at the border posts.
The Ministry of Home Affairs had announced that some passports were ready for collection.
Yet most of the people who thronged the Passport Office returned home empty-handed after they were told their passports were still being processed.
Some said they had arrived at the office as early as 7am but the queue was already long.