Machine-readable Passport Stalemate

The deadline is November 2015. The clock ticks away for about 60 lakh Bangladeshi expatriates in different countries. Will they get machine-readable passport in time or face deportation?The question arises as the issuance of MRPs continues to be sluggish. Unless things improve drastically, most of the expatriates will not get new passport before the stipulated time. This will jeopardise the future of remittance earners who send home over a billion US dollars each month.Since the issuance began four years ago, the government has been able to give MRPs to only 11.5 lakh expatriates out of an estimated 70 lakh.

At this pace, only around four lakh more will get new passport before the deadline of November 24 next year.On expiry of the deadline, set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, old passports will not be accepted by any foreign governments.Extending the deadline by a year or two will not make much difference unless the government expedites the MRP issuance.So far, about 1 crore locals have got MRPs with the government issuing 13,000 MRPs a day to meet the demand.For all the expatriates to get new passport before the deadline, the government will need to print an additional 22,000 MRPs a day -- a mammoth task.Senior home ministry officials said actions of IRIS Corporation Berhad -- the Malaysian company responsible for production of the new travel documents -- have been causing delays and disruptions in the issuance of MRP.

IRIS, whose job is to provide software and technical documentation and print passports, now controls the entire MRP system.As the custodian, the home ministry was supposed to monitor the company's activities and ensure timely issuance of passports. But it did little, appearing to be content with a disaster waiting to happen.There was no problem with MRP issuance in the first two years since it began in 2010. IRIS started making things difficult for the government after it lost an MRP expansion job to one of its competitors at home and another job in Malaysia, sources in the Department of Immigration and Passport (DIP) said.Despite its contractual obligation to integrate software of others with its system free of cost, the Malaysian company is blocking the system with codes and shifting the blame onto its competitors.

Documents of the DIP and a probe, conducted by a firm the DIP had assigned, exposed this. But the home ministry is sitting on the report.“This failure [integration] tells that there are validation logics [codes inside the software] in the application which is preventing the MRP from printing. It is confirmed by the authorities that such validation is not defined in any documentation,” private company Secure Link Services (SELISE) says in its report after detecting the cause behind non-integration in May this year.In the wake of the integration problems, DIP Director General Abdul Mabud himself engaged the company but did not make the report public as it revealed IRIS's questionable activities.Lt Col Emran Ahmed Chowdhury, deputy project director of MRP project, sent a letter to IRIS on May 14 and described how the central system was blocked with validation rules.

On October 15, the MRP project management asked IRIS to provide Application Programming Interface (API) -- a set of rules for making software -- and relevant information to integrate any software with the company's software.The day before, the DIP sent the project management another letter saying, “For not getting API and related information, MRP issuance from 33 centres in the country and from Malaysia has been delayed, causing harassments to the applicants.”“As per contract between the DIP and IRIS JV [joint venture with two other companies] for introduction of MRP and MRV in Bangladesh, IRIS JV is supposed to provide API to any other company or organisation authorised by DIP for integration,” reads another DIP letter, issued by its additional DG Rafiqul Islam on October 27.It asked IRIS to provide all necessary API and documentation by October 30 for its system's integration with other companies' software.Failure to do so would be considered non-cooperation and the DIP would be forced to take legal action as per contractual provisions, the letter warns.It further mentions, “Service Provider could not integrate their software due to non-availability of API of the existing software supplied and installed by IRIS JV. As a result passport could not be printed.”DIP officials say IRIS did not provide the API, prolonging the MRP crisis.Although the integration problem is going on for seven months, the DIP and the home ministry are yet to make any move against IRIS.

IRIS was able to take full control of the system it had established at Agargaon passport office by keeping a number of officials happy with fancy foreign trips and alleged kickbacks, DIP insiders say.“Nobody knows how the central system works. Even for a minor issue or change in the system, the department depends on IRIS,” said a DIP official.A senior home ministry official, who is well aware of the situation, said, “The company can halt the system anytime, bringing a disaster to Bangladesh citizens.”Be it in Bangladesh, Malaysia or the UAE, it sets the rules for issuing MRPs for Bangladeshi citizens, and its agreements with the government matter little. The role of the government officials is not regulative, it's rather supportive, DIP sources said.In the UAE, IRIS got the MRP expansion job but then illegally employed a subcontractor. The sensitive data of remittance earners was being collected at phone/fax and photocopy shops.In Malaysia, IRIS blocked its competitor's access to its system in Dhaka and forced the competitor to subcontract the Malaysian expansion job to a dummy company of IRIS.

The dummy company, BITARA Abadi, then entered the Bangladesh high commission infrastructure in Kuala Lumpur without authorisation to send and receive data, compromising state security, the Bangladesh high commissioner to Malaysia informed the foreign ministry in a letter.In Oman, things could become just as difficult, as IRIS recently lost the contract to a joint venture of Indian BLS International Ltd and Bangladesh's Beximco Online and Dohatech.In a letter on October 15, the DIP asked the consortium to take a consent letter from IRIS for integration.“Conspiracy is there to prove the consortium failed and award the Oman job to IRIS, which was the second lowest bidder,” a DIP official said, requesting anonymity.Against this bleak backdrop, Bangladeshi expatriates holding old passports are deeply nervous. Once the deadline expires, they will find themselves in serious trouble.“If I don't get my MRP before the deadline, I will have no choice but to go back home or get arrested,” said Tuhin, who went to Malaysia with a non-machine readable passport.Working at a shop in Penang, he is yet to recover the money he had spent to get to Malaysia. “I have to earn more, build a new home and start my own family. For all that, I need to keep working,” an anxious Tuhin told The Daily Star over the telephone.Like Tuhin's, the fate of around 5 lakh Bangladeshis in Malaysia hangs in the balance as only a few thousand have got the MRPs so far.The government's estimate say there are 30 lakh expatriates in Saudi Arabia, 10 lakh in United Arab Emirate and 10 lakh in Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya.IRIS has not been able to provide MRP to a single expatriate in Saudi Arabia since July 22 this year when it signed a contract with the government.It provided only 928 passports to UAE expatriates in five months since its contract there took effect in June, say official records at the DIP.

When contacted in October, State Minister for Home Asaduzzaman Khan did not even want to hear about issues regarding IRIS. Many at the ministry said the minister was being ill advised by some high officials concerned.Asaduzzaman accused Dataedge, a company that got the MRP expansion job beating IRIS, for creating all the trouble. He said nothing about the integration crisis and who was actually responsible for it.In May, a meeting chaired by the then senior home secretary Mustaq Ahmed decided to assign experts of Buet and Dhaka University to find the root cause of the integration problem. He was silent, as the home ministry did not implement its own decision.Md Mozammel Haque Khan, senior secretary of the home ministry, said they were trying to resolve the MRP crisis but refused to make comments on IRIS activities.“We have to fulfil the international requirement regarding MRP. But we are now facing stalemates at different levels,” he told The Daily Star, adding, “If we fail to resolve the stalemates, I'm afraid many expats will not get MRPs in time.”MRP Project Director Brig Gen Masud Redwan said the issue of expatriates' passports was not his concern. “The DG deals with this issue,” he told The Daily Star, claiming that there was no problem with integration.Two other ministries concerned -- foreign and expatriates' welfare and overseas employment -- are also sitting idle.Instead of facing any actions for its violations of contract, IRIS is getting MRP issuance job one after another. Apart from Malaysia and UAE, it has also got the job in Saudi Arabia.The Daily Star, on September 13, 24, 28 and on October 25 sent emails to four IRIS officials -- Managing Director Dato Tan Say Jim, CEO Dato Hamdan, Senior Sales Manager Bahjat Aman, project director in Bangladesh Lee Soo Mei -- and requested them to clarify the issues in the UAE and Malaysia.