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The Passport Saga

I'm sitting in a lounge drinking bad coffee and I have a few hours to kill, so I thought I'd get this story out of my pending pile. This is a story about how some Sri Lankan government institutions - and some of the people who staff them - are terrible at their jobs.

I hope their version of hell is them being destined for paradise but they instead accidentally get sent to hell and they have to fill out transfer forms in triplicate but no one ever processes their request and never answers their calls for ever and ever. This might sound like a harsh sentence for a delay in processing a passport but I believe an example needs to be made if we are to improve efficiency in the Sri Lankan government sector.

In The Beginning - May (0 Weeks) #

Let's go back to the beginning. My passport expires in June of 2023 and I need to get it renewed. Normally, I'd just hop over to the passport office and get it done. It's usually an all-day affair, but sorting it in person means the worst you'll need to suffer are long queues and people invading your personal space before you get the new passport.

But since I currently live in Sydney, Australia, I had to go through the Sri Lankan High Commission in Canberra. I don't know why, but Sydney doesn't seem to rate a consulate, inconvenient but not a big deal. I call the consulate and make sure I have all the documents I need and I use their checklist to prepare my application. I'm 40 years old, I've done this before and I've had many passports in the past.

On the 22nd of May, I bus it to Canberra, submit my application, and eat some delicious pho. Nothing else to report.

Google maps listing of Ms Ba Co inCanberra city Definitely check this place out

They told me that the application would be processed in about two months. So I'd just have to wait.

Expected Amount of Time Passes - July (8 Weeks) #

No news from them about the application. Not a big deal, I emailed them on the 26th of July. I am relaxed.

They reply the application has been forwarded and I could follow up with the Overseas Mission Division at the Immigration Department if I wanted more details. They tell me it will take approximately 12 weeks for the application to be processed. A month longer than initially thought, and cutting it a little close to a Thailand trip I planned to take in August or September. But I'm alright with that. People are working on my application. It is in process. We're on Sri Lankan time, slow but it will eventually get to the destination.

Expected Delay Passes - August (12 Weeks) #

Picture of Cooper from the movie Interstellar with the caption'Cooper! This is no time for caution' COOOP!

This is no time for emails. I call the consulate. Then I call. And I call. And then I call again.

The phone just rings. No one ever answers. After a few days of calling at random times to make sure it's not a timing problem I finally get through and they explain that:

  1. They are very understaffed so no one around to answer calls.
  2. They'll look into my delay and call back

Of course, they didn't call back. After trying again for a few days I get through to the same person again and he says that there's a backlog of applications because of "the troubles" going on in Sri Lanka. They said I can follow up with the Immigration Department.

I bought an IDD pack on Telstra and started calling the immigration department. And of course, no one answers. A not-so-well-known factoid about Sri Lankans working in govt and services - they are very shy and don't like answering phone calls.

The IDD pack goes to waste because no one ever answers the phone in a month of calling. I even went through the immigration department and emailed the relevant controllers, but the emails just bounced back to me. Apparently, they are shy about writing emails too, who knew?

Standard email template informingme that the email bounced Thanks for letting me know, I guess?

Then I saw the news of a malware attack and I wondered whether my email got lost in the attack as well. Either way, I never hear from them.

Panic Inducing Amount of Time Passes - October (20 Weeks) #

In the next two months, I continue to call and email anyone I can get a hold of. I keep getting the "Don't worry, your application is in process, we're just dealing with a backlog.". Around mid-October, I CC every email I can see on the SL High Commission in Australia website and I finally get a reply. It simply said

Plaese (sic) send us a soft copy of your Birth certificate which was issued by the Sri Lanka High Commission in India when you were born in India at that time.

Now, for those who don't know me, I was born in India. But I'm a Sri Lankan national. Their request for a birth certificate issued by the Sri Lankan High Commission in India made no sense because I know this document doesn't exist and I've never needed it when I applied for my previous passports.

Given the lack of context, this is a very confusing email. I tried to call them to get more context and of course, they didn't answer so I emailed them asking for clarification and informing them I've already attached the birth certificate issued by the Indian government and the citizenship document from the Sri Lankan government confirming that I gave up my Indian citizenship and registered as a Sri Lankan.

After a bit of back and forth, it came out that when the HC in Canberra inquired about the status of my application, they were told by the immigration department that this document was required to process my application. The high commission finally wipes their hands of me and tells me that I need to take it up with the Registrar General's Department at the Central Records Room.

Another government department wants their pound of flesh.

Now that the story was getting confusing, I called up the SLHC in Chennai and asked them about this document. Luckily for me, I was connected to the most competent person I had spoken to in this whole saga. She filled in the blanks for all the missing places.

Something that always confused me was why my sister was able to renew her passport about 8 months ago without this birth certificate. She applied through her SLHC in Chennai, and everything went fine. That question was answered when I saw this government circular.

SLgazette notification showing documents needed when applying from differentcountries How do Sri Lankans living in Syria have an easier time than me?!

Looks like the documents you need differ according to which country you're applying from.

There was a distinct lack of Australia on the list that didn't need the birth certificate.

A Quick Recap #

Let me recap the players.

  1. Me - I just want to renew my passport
  2. SL High Commission in Canberra - Wants me to leave them alone
  3. Immigration Department - Being difficult
  4. SL High Commission in Chennai - Supposed to have issued me a birth certificate, but didn't.
  5. Registrar General's Department - Stores all the documents

Generally, dealing with one government department is painful enough, and now I had to deal with four. At this point, I had given up on the Thailand trip. Given my luck, I wasn't even sure about a Sri Lanka trip I was planning in December.

I change my approach. I got my friend to visit the records room and inquire about this missing document. They tell him that I can do one of two things. I can either go through the process and get a NIL certificate issued or I can speak with the SLHC in Chennai and have them re-issue and forward the document to the records room.

A NIL certificate can be issued to you if you can get the government org to agree that this birth certificate requirement doesn't apply to you.

My friend listens to them and is leaving the building when someone does the equivalent of going 'pssst' from a dark alley.

A Stranger Appears #

This person introduces himself as a small businessman with some pull inside the records room. He tells my friend that he overheard the whole thing and he believes he can help. This is the Sri Lankan way. There are always back-channels in play and you need to use all avenues available. However, after some back and forth with the person spread over a week, I let things fizzle out and he seemed too busy to deal with this matter. This is also the Sri Lankan way, people overpromise and under-deliver.

Good ol Family Connections #

While lamenting to my aunt about the situation, she mentioned my uncle might know someone who can help with this problem. I get introduced to this gentleman and it seems very promising. He's worked at the immigration department in the past, is well-connected, and seemed keen to help.

My hopes of relaxing on a Sri Lankan beach in December, rise.

Over the next couple of weeks, he calls me and assures me that things are in motion. His contacts are going to hook me up.

I'm already imagining the sun on my face.

After a couple of weeks, he goes dark too. I can't force people to help me get a passport, so I leave him alone and look at the options available to me.

The Sri Lankan beach is looking very unlikely.

Help Comes to Those Who Help Themselves #

It's November now. I'd resigned myself to doing this the long way - I had to go back to Sri Lanka on a temporary passport and sort the certificate issue out. It being a temporary passport, it would be a one-way trip and I wouldn't be able to come back to Australia until I sorted out my new passport.

I was chatting with a friend and mentioned this depressing story to a friend, He mentioned that his father-in-law might be able to help. Given the past, I wasn't holding my breath. But I wrote out a summary and explained what had happened up to this point and waited. I got connected to a friend of the FIL and I was then asked some intelligent questions about my situation. I was finally speaking with a man who understood the situation.

He then hooked me up with a contact in the SLHC in Chennai (a different person from the one I spoke with before). This person then orchestrates things so that I can submit the docs I have at hand from the SLHC in Canberra and my dad can submit the rest of the documents from the SLHC in Chennai.

Since the time I applied for the passport, I have done my driver's training and gotten my Australian driving license. So this time we drove to Canberra and submitted the docs. When I explained the situation to the counter staff at the SLHC, I learned that they had been discussing my plight and the unique circumstances that led to it. Guess I was a discussion piece at the SLHC.

Due to another bout of sheer luck, my dad was in Trivandrum visiting my sister. So, a quick flight over to Chennai was all it took for him to submit the rest of the docs.

A couple of things still had to be smoothed over. Some docs were not available and we promised to send them along as soon as my dad went back to SL. And my mom and dad's marriage certificate wasn't considered official since it was issued by the church (in India) and not by the government - things were way more relaxed back then. So now I'm technically a bastard.

Picture of my birth certificate showingmy parents were unmarried You know nothing John Snow

End of an Era - December (27 Weeks) #

But in the end, the SLHC in Chennai issued my birth certificate, and then my dad couriered it to my friend, and then he took it over to the immigration department, and then they issued the new passport (with the wrong place of birth), and then my friend couriered it to me in Australia.

It took seven months, but I was finally able to book my flights to Sri Lanka. Thank you to everyone who helped or hindered me in this epic quest, I came out a stronger, harder person because of you. I have run the gauntlet, and come out victorious.