This piece first aired in July, 2010, as part of the show, “Passport Troubles”
Host Intro:In the United States, all you have to do to get a passport is submit paper work at the nearest post office and wait about a month to get it in the mail. But in Iraq, where travel is more urgent, there is much more uncertainty. Jessie Arian has the story.
JESSIE ARIAN: Mohammad Ali is an Iraqi from Mosul studying for a Masters degree in French. He and several others from Mosul University have recently been given the opportunity to travel to France as part of a government-sponsored program. Though he should be excited, it’s actually causing him a great deal of anxiety: He still needs to get a passport.
MOHAMMED ALI: The university can’t get passports for their students, so if I don’t get a passport to get a visa from France, I can’t travel to that country.
JESSIE ARIAN: Ali, as he asked us to call him, has to be there by November, but he’s worried that he’s running out of time. He explains what people in his situation have to do.
MOHAMMED ALI: When you want to travel to any country, you have an appointment and a date to catch it. So if you have to get a passport in two or three weeks, you have to pay to someone to get the passport.
JESSIE ARIAN: In Iraq, most people expect to pay bribes for processing government paperwork, especially passports. Ali told us that he will have to pay about 350 US dollars or risk a long wait that could cost him his trip. Unfortunately, one of his professors has already missed her chance.
MOHAMMED ALI: One of my professors had to cancel her travel because she didn’t have a passport.
JESSIE ARIAN: Calling the passport situation in Iraq a “dilemma” is not an exaggeration. Saddam Hussein’s regime made it very difficult for Iraqis to leave the country. But after the US invasion in 2003, the Iraqi government began issuing the S-series passport. People showed up at the passport offices by the hundreds every day in order to get one. Yarob is an Iraqi student studying energy technology in the UK. He recalls what he went through to get the S passport.
YAROB: We had to go in the morning because we wanted to catch the beginning of the very very long queue. It took us at least four hours to leave there, the window where we put our applications. …We’re told that we can collect our passport after maybe two or three weeks. Something happened, but I think after two months we went to that place and collected our passports.
JESSIE ARIAN: But the main problem with the S passport was its lack of security. Because they were hand-written, passports were easy to forge. It was even possible to get blank S-Passports, which people could fill in themselves. So in 2006, the Iraqi government issued the G-series passport and discontinued the S-series. Yarob was not surprised.
YAROB: We were kind of expecting to change our passports because our passports they were really backward, and they easy to be faked by anyone. So when the government decided to switch to G passports, we were expecting that change.
JESSIE ARIAN: The G passport was much more secure: it was machine-readable and it had holograms . But getting it was even more difficult. The issuing of the G passport coincided with escalation of sectarian violence, causing backlog. Yarob remembers those days.
YAROB: So when the G passport was really valuable or very difficult to get so people used money as a way to get a passport quickly. I mean, because the situation at that time was really, really bad, I mean, in terms of security situation and the killings were everywhere. So people paid money to corrupted officers to get passports quickly. And I remember one guy told me he paid, at the very beginning, one of them told me he paid $900 to get one. And after maybe six months, one year, another guy told me he paid $700.
JESSIE ARIAN: In addition to having to pay bribes, people living outside of Baghdad face an even longer wait. Even though there is a closer passport office, Ali says he still has to travel to Baghdad.
MOHAMMED ALI: It’s very difficult to get it. This is the problem of all Iraqis in all the cities. And here in Mosul it’s very difficult because the authorities are not giving out any passports. So the people in Mosul have to travel to Baghdad.
Although so many Iraqis apply for passports, some don’t want to bother. An engineering student from Baghdad, who asked to be called Alino Rayan, hasn’t even tried.
ALINO RAYAN: No, I haven’t really because it’s really a messed up process. You have to go through a lot of things to be able to get it, so I think if I wanted to get one, I will suffer. So I don’t know, maybe I will do one in the future, near future. I hope so.
JESSIE ARIAN: Rayan wants one day to come to the United States.
ALINO RAYAN: I wanna to go to America. Like go to maybe New York? Stuff like that? I mean my relatives are there, my friends are going there. So it’s like I have to finish college and go there, you know? But the only problem is passports. It’s like I have to make up connections in order to get me one. It’s really complicated.
JESSIE ARIAN: To make things even more complicated and an even bigger headache, the Iraqi government announced this year it would issue yet another passport series. It’s A this time.
For War News Radio, I’m Jessie Arian