MASERU — Thousands of Basotho migrant workers who had come back home for the Easter holiday are now trapped in Lesotho after they failed to get temporary travel documents to go back to their jobs in South Africa.
There was chaos at the Passport Office at Pitso Ground on Tuesday after an official told hundreds of desperate applicants in the long queue that the office had run out of temporary travel documents.
Government Printers stopped producing the document last week amid speculation that the authorities there had launched a probe into a syndicate of some senior officials who were smuggling the documents for sale to desperate people on the streets.
On Tuesday morning, the Passport Office only managed to serve a dozen people before announcing it had run out of the documents.
By mid-day the Passport Office had stopped issuing the temporary travel documents.
The biggest victims of the crisis are people who had used temporary documents to travel to South Africa while waiting for their passports to be processed.
Many had hoped that when they came back for the Easter holiday their passports would be ready or they would renew their temporary documents which had expired.
But when they got to the Passport Office on Tuesday they were told that their passports were not ready and that they would not be able to get the temporary travel documents as well.
There are also hundreds of Basotho who are applying for the temporary documents to avoid using their passports which were endorsed after they overstayed in South Africa.
Fines for overstaying in South Africa range between M1 500 and M3 000 but people normally avoid paying the fines by applying for temporary documents which they use when they cross back into South Africa.
To do this they use false names or change their details.
Yet this time that option was not available.
They had to either pay the fines, cross the border illegally or stay in Lesotho.
There are nearly 50 000 Basotho who work in South African mines and come back home regularly.
Many came back home for the Easter Holidays.
The Ministry Home Affairs and Public Safety which is in charge of the Passport Service department this week said the situation was beyond its control.
The ministry’s principal secretary, Lefa Mokotjo, told the Lesotho Times yesterday that Government Printers had stopped producing the temporary travel documents “after discovering that some government officers were fraudulently reproducing them for their own personal enrichment”.
“It is only unfortunate that by coincidence this happened during the Easter holidays,” Mokotjo said.
“We were not planning to trap Basotho migrant workers at home but we were just trying to put the theft of the documents under control,” he said.
“We are aware that there is a syndicate that includes workers at the Government Printers, the Passport Services department and people in the street who sell the documents.”
This syndicate, Mokotjo said, will have to be caught before any new documents are issued.
Mokotjo said the authorities at Government Printers resolved to stop producing the temporary travel documents “while the activities of the syndicate are being investigated.”
“We are also aware that workers at the Passport Office purposely delay to issue passports and temporary travel documents so that impatient applicants end up buying the ones (being sold) from the street.
“As a means of dealing with the matter once and for all, we have submitted a proposal to the finance ministry seeking funds to hire enough people to do the work within a very short time.
“They will work in three shifts around the clock to produce and issue passports in time.”
He said the ministry was planning to phase out the current temporary travel documents and replace them with the ones with a security bar code and a watermark to prevent their duplication.
“The new temporary travel documents will have a security bar code and a watermark and we are certain that this syndicate will be unable to duplicate them,” he said.
The new temporary travel documents are expected to be issued by May, he added.
But the suspension of the temporary travel documents has not stopped the syndicates from preying on desperate people.
The Lesotho Times spoke to several people who said they had managed to get their travel documents after bribing some officials in the Passport Office.
“I have a friend who has connections inside the Passport Office,” said one woman who managed to bribe her way to get a temporary travel document by mid-morning Tuesday.
“I paid M50 to get this travel document,” she said waving it at the Lesotho Times reporter to see.
Temporary travel documents are issued for free.
She said she works at a farm in the Free State province in South Africa and only comes home twice a year to renew her travel document.
Not everyone can afford to pay the bribe though.
“This boy stays with our relative in Sebokeng, South Africa, and is supposed to go back tomorrow morning,” said an angry ’Matlali Molebatsi who was trying to get a temporary travel document for her six-year-old nephew.
“He needs a new one or else he is not going to be able to cross the border. They will not allow him,” she said.
“I am going to pester the director here until he helps me,” said a man who wanted temporary travel documents for his two grandchildren who are supposed to go back to South Africa this week.