UAE Iraqis restricted by passport delays

Thousands awaiting new biometric passports are still unable to travel to most western and some Arab countries because of long delays.

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DUBAI // Thousands of Iraqis in the UAE are still unable to travel to most western and some Arab countries because of long delays in issuing new biometric passports from Baghdad. At the beginning of 2007, the Iraqi government cancelled and started phasing out several series of passports amid reports of widespread counterfeiting.

In their place, the government introduced biometric passports, known as the G series, which have enhanced security features. However, with only one machine in Baghdad producing passports for Iraq-based nationals as well as expatriates around the world, millions of people have been unable to travel to places where only the G-series passports are accepted. These include Europe, the United States and, more recently, Egypt. Jordan is also expected to allow only G-series passport holders into the country from December.

The process has restricted the movement of many of the estimated 150,000 Iraqis on UAE residence and visit visas, including businessmen, students and medical patients. "The problem is that the decision to not accept the older passports was suddenly applied to 27 million Iraqis," said Tariq al Shaher, the deputy consul at the Iraqi consulate in Dubai. "Some people here have to go to hospital or universities, conferences or on holiday in Europe or Australia or to other Arab countries."

Since 2007, about 25,000 G-series passports had been issued to Iraqi citizens in the UAE, Mr Shaher said, adding that the consulate hands out at least 200 applications every day. These are sent to the ministry of foreign affairs in Baghdad once a month to be processed and then moved to the ministry of interior, where the passports are issued. The Iraqi government is planning to install new machines in several countries, including the UAE, within the next few months to speed up the process.

"This is just a temporary system before there are more machines brought in to produce the passports," Mr Shaher said. "But, hopefully in four to six months all of these problems will be finished." The G-series passports take an average of 45 days to be issued, according to the consulate, although some urgent cases can be processed within three weeks. But some Iraqis said they had waited months for their new passports to be issued from Baghdad, while others faced difficulties obtaining the necessary paperwork from their war-torn homeland.

"If they do not have the papers they can come here to the consulate and authorise someone in Iraq to act on their behalf," Mr Shaher said. "We have solutions if they don't have the necessary IDs. They can come here." However, some Iraqis said that following the start of the Gulf War in 2003 and the subsequent looting of government buildings, their records were not always intact even if they had someone to access the papers.

Waleed Ali, an Iraqi businessman who has lived in Dubai for 30 years and has never been to Iraq, has been unable to produce the documentation necessary to apply for a new biometric passport and cannot travel on business trips to the US or Europe. Mr Ali does not have his ahwal madaniya (civil status certificate) or shahadat jinsiya (certificate of nationality) necessary for a passport application and has no relatives left in his home country to help him retrieve the papers.

Yet, despite spending more than Dh11,000 (US$3,000) in fees for two lawyers in the past year, he is still waiting to receive the documents from Baghdad. "We just have to take their word when they say the process is taking time," said Mr Ali, whose father moved to the UAE in 1968. "My passport is practically useless and the consulate has been no help. After living here for over 30 years they should know who we are and that we are genuine Iraqi citizens."

Mr Shaher said there were plans to start issuing identity documents in Dubai to help Iraqi expatriates to acquire the correct paperwork. The Iraqi government is also looking to update the system of identification, with the introduction of a new ID that will combine all information on one card. The government stopped issuing H-series passports following the outbreak of war in 2003 after reports of counterfeiting emerged. Concerned that other passport series with similar security devices were also compromised, the authorities invalidated the M series on Jan 1 2007. N-series passports were cancelled a year later.

The S-series passport - which many Iraqis, including Mr Ali, have - became invalid for travel to many countries, including the US, from Jan 2007. US authorities said the passport failed to meet international security standards. Mr Shaher said the authorities were still issuing S-series passports to people who could not wait for the G series. "But, day by day the situation is easing and we are doing what we can to help," he said. "Ultimately, we just want one type of passport and eventually, step by step, we will cancel all other types of passports."

Meanwhile, the situation is affecting even those born to Iraqi parents living outside of Iraq. Mr Ali's baby daughter, who was born in the UAE earlier this year, cannot be issued with a G-series passport until his biometric document comes through, meaning she is also restricted from travelling to some countries.