Monday, April 18, 2011

The Immigration and Emigration Department has set up an Electronic Travel Authority to simplify the visa process and facilitate short stay visitors.!!

On-line visa system active
by Manjula FERNANDO

The Immigration and Emigration Department has set up an Electronic Travel Authority to simplify the visa process and facilitate short stay visitors.

Immigration and Emigration Controller General Chulananda Perera said the Authority allows tourists who would like to come to Sri Lanka for a short stay to apply and obtain a visa online.

"This service will be available for travellers from 78 countries including India from which tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka take place at present," he said adding that visitors from Singapore and the Maldives can continue to obtain an on arrival visa as a reciprocal gesture as these two countries offer the same facility to Sri Lankan visitors.

"After obtaining the processing fee, we will refer the application to the migration intelligence unit for profiling and vetting. This is done to verify if the applicant is a frequent or suspicious traveller or if he is from a health risk zone such as a country where there is an outbreak of an epidemic."

Such people will have to face an interview at a Sri Lankan mission in the country where they hold citizenship.

The Controller said this profiling would be made within hours and the visa will be issued within three days under the regular service or within one day at a higher fee. The Department will also operate a 24-hour calling centre to receive inquiries on visa matters. The visa will be sent via e-mail or mobile Short Message Service. The visitor has to submit the visa number and his passport at the Immigration counter at the airport and he will be granted access for a short stay.

Produced by Lake House Copyright © 2011 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

Controller General of Immigration and Emigration, Chulananda Perera in an interview with the Sunday Observer.!!!

Biometrics to keep impostors at bay:

No more dual citizenship for asylum seekers

Controller General of Immigration and Emigration, Chulananda Perera in an interview with the Sunday Observer said his Department will make changes to facilitate bona fide travellers and ordinary citizens but tough action is in the offing for economic migrants who sell country's name to gain asylum in the West.

"We will not issue passports to such people and no dual citizenships for those who gain asylum in the future."

He said the Department will introduce biometric based passports shortly. A hi-tech project which is about to take wings to link the ID Department, the Registrar of Births, Foreign Employment Bureau, the Defence Ministry and the Interpol online along with the biometric readings, will forestall impersonations and enhance credibility to Sri Lankan passports.

An interview with the Immigration Controller General, Chulananda Perera

Q: How do you propose to modernise the role of the Department of Immigration and Emigration in the future?

A: The Department of Immigration and Emigration has four key functions; issuing passports, issuing visas for foreigners, border control and border management and citizenship matters.

The citizenship matters involve issuing of dual citizenships and registrations of birth of persons born outside the country. Thus this Department is not just a passport issuing body as many think.

Next year our main target is to introduce biometric capturing for the issuance of new passports. We will not be having a biometric passport but instead our target is to capture biometrics, such as the thumb and facial print, etc of the applicant before a passport is issued to minimise impersonations by enhancing security.

This compels the applicant to call over at the passport office in Colombo or one of the three branches in Anuradhapura, Matara or Kandy to submit the biometrics but the outcome would be highly rewarding.

The Australian government is extending financial support for the project. The technical aspects will be covered by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). They are assisting us in this project. We have submitted our guidelines and requirements to the IOM to develop the software.

This will go a long way in improving the credibility of Sri Lankan passports. Although we carry more than 20 security features in Sri Lankan passports, conforming to the best international standards, there is suspicion or lack of confidence among foreign immigration officials towards Sri Lankan passport holders.

The passport is issued based on the supporting documents, mainly the national ID and birth certificates, provided by the applicant. If they are forged there is a possibility they could get away with a passport with forged details. By next year we will have on-line links with the National Identity Card office and office of the Registrar of Births. This will enable the Department to cross-check the bona fides of documents. Already we have made preparations to link the Colombo Kachcheri office with the Department before the end of 2011.

Collecting biometrics will further improve and keep impostors at bay. This will freeze an individual's identity and there won't be room for criminals to maintain multiple passports. This is what we are going to block. This way we will also prevent sending over-age or under-age women as domestic aides. The National ID office will also introduce biometric based IDs along with the passport office.

We will be implementing this together.

In addition, before the end of this year, we will link up with the Foreign Ministry, Foreign Employment Bureau and the Defence Ministry online to share data of over four million people in our data bank.

Q: Is Australia involved in this because they have a major problem with illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka?

A: Not fully. We have good bilateral relations with the Australian Government and when we were confronted with financial constrains to implement the biometrics project, they agreed to help us. We had discussions with several countries for assistance. A decision to introduce biometric readings was taken following a research initiated by the Department with the help of IOM recently. This research evaluated measures to be taken to enhance credibility and security of Sri Lankan passports

Any embassy can obtain information on any passport issued by the Department via e-mail. The service is called the Integrated Inquiry Management System. They maintain close links with us. Thus it was easy to convince them to help us.

Q: Will there be any new branches set up to cater to the growing needs?

A: One of the other ambitions for this year is to shift the visa office in Anuradhapura to Vavuniya. There are very few callers at the Anuradhapura office. The applicants from the North and the East prefer to get to Colombo for their passport matters. Thus the plan to shift the office was submitted for Cabinet approval recently and was given the green light. The Kandy and Matara offices will remain. But there are no new branches in the offing for the time being.

Q: Moves are afoot to simplify passport renewals. What is the progress and has this been successful?

A: Very much successful, it is a great relief for people. The Immigration and Emigration Department is a facilitating institution in addition to a regulating body. If an individual already possesses a travel document that means that he has already proven his identity. We may ask for proof of any address change but the birth certificate and other basic documents need not be re-submitted.

What we want to ascertain is whether this person is a Sri Lankan citizen, whether he is actually who he claims to be and whether this is his correct age. That will be the key issues we want to be 100 % sure about. The collection of biometrics and online links with the ID department and the Registrar of births will help us in this aspect to a larger degree.

If the person needs to change his name or civil status due to marriage or divorce or any other reason, he may have to submit the marriage certificate and the court order in case of a divorce or other documents.

There won't be a need for a JP's (Justice of the Peace) involvement in this whole process. I want to eliminate the role they play. This is a menace for passport applicants. I want to make it as pain free as possible but without compromising the credibility of the Sri Lankan passport.

Q: Can't you take some action about the touts who torment mainly the innocent people who call over at your office?

A: I expect the media to educate the people about the pack of touts who operate outside the Immigration and Emigration Department. A passport can be obtained within a matter of three to four hours at my Department now.

There is no need to go behind touts for help. That culture has long expired. But people are yet to realise this. They still get hoodwinked by these vultures.

When they corner a victim, these touts lie that his/her documents are not in order and pretend to call someone inside the 'passport office'. Then they instruct his 'catch' to go to a particular counter where their so called friend is present. Actually this is the counter the applicant has to reach even if he goes as a regular applicant. For this superficial service they charge some thousands of rupees. I don't know why the people still believe their stories.

Announcements are made from time to time via the Department's public announcement system, asking people to seek help only from an officer wearing an official ID. There are such ushers all over the place. But still people do not make their contribution to make this 'culture of vultures' a history.

They should stop patronising these touts and help us improve our service. There are surprise raids by the Police and the Army. But the moment they sniff it, these shrewd operators vanish into thin air.

This is a difficult battle for us. My staff has been trained to help anyone who walks in. I am prepared to fill an application form for someone who needs help and so is my staff.

Q: What is the situation with the child passport applicants? Is it still mandatory to have the consent of both the parents to include the child in the passport or get a separate passport for a child?

A: It is like this. According to Immigration and Emigration laws, a mother or father can submit an application with regard to a minor - a child below 16 years. This is a privilege because they don't have to bring the child here. But the mother and the father both have to give the consent.

Those days we allowed one parent to call over with a letter of consent from the other party. But people misused this facility to smuggle children of broken families out of the country. There were cases, a mother or a father forging the signature of his partner and submitting bogus letters of consent.

This huge framed picture of the little girl was given to me by her mother sometime back. I call her the modern day 'Patachara'. Even today this mother is looking for her daughter. She was very shrewdly smuggled out of the country by her father.

Because of this practice, we have now stopped issuing passports for minors with consent letters. Now both the parents must visit the Department personally to obtain a passport for a child below 16. In case of one parent living overseas, he or she has to visit the Sri Lankan mission there and get a consent written in front of an officer. The officer has to certify this letter. If one parent is dead, then they will have to submit the death certificate. This is to minimise malpractices. In case of a child we can never take a chance.

In case of a divorce we need the court order to check as to who has the child's guardianship. Even a baby born few days ago can obtain a separate passport.

We are planning to do away with the practice of including child in mother's or father's passport in the near future as this is contrary to the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) standards.

Q: When the foreign embassies started to collect biometrics for visa, there was a huge public uproar. Will the passport office have to face public antagonism if biometrics based passports are introduced?

A: This has a lot of benefits for a genuine traveller. For example there will be no room for impersonation. The credibility to Sri Lankan passports will be high.

The world is moving towards biometric based passports. This is the modern trend now. This will have no bearing on your privacy. This is a way of proving your identity without a doubt.

In addition bona fide travellers will have less hassle in obtaining visas to any country as the recognition to Lankan passports will increase following this addition. Due to actions of bogus travellers who account for about five per cent all others are inconvenienced. Our aim is to restrict this five percent.

Q: What is the situation with the border control mechanism?

A: We are going to link up with the Interpol for border control activities in the future. The Criminal Investigation Department is helping us with this initiative. We are going to obtain quick access to data of most wanted people with the Interpol so that such persons will never be allowed to travel out or into the country. We are also seeking online access to the worldwide directory of lost and stolen passports to block imposters.

This is how we plan to strengthen the internal border control mechanism in the future.

With the assistance of the Australian Government we have installed a laboratory that can read security features in any passport or a visa issued by any country. Our passport is one of the best secured passports but there is a problem with the processing of support documents. This is a loose end.

We will be initiating a border surveillance unit this year under the direction of the Defence Secretary. This unit will carry out random checks at the airports. They will make raids at the final point of departure, just before boarding, to make sure that the same person who clears from the immigration gets into the plane. We have information that sometimes at the point of boarding people switch boarding passes. The Defence Secretary's approval is pending for this.

Q: When are you going to reactivate issuing of dual citizenships?

A: Dual citizenship is issued under several categories. If the person has property in Sri Lanka, if the person concerned is a senior citizen, if he is a degree holder or if he maintains an NRFC account with a balance equivalent to Rs. 2.5 million.

Anyone who fits in one of these categories can obtain the dual citizenship. But what happened is that the people who obtained dual citizenship did so for things such as to sell their property and take the money away. The dual citizenship protected them from paying taxes to the Government. This was not helping the country. So far we have issued over 35,000 duel citizenships, with Rs. 200,000 fee. When we analysed this 35,000, that is what we realized.

We communicated our findings to the President and the Defence Secretary. They have instructed to revise the old procedure of granting dual citizenships. Now we have reviewed the procedure and it will be introduced shortly after the President's approval.

Q: The people who have claimed asylum status, can they obtain passports or renew their passports? Will they not be granted dual citizenships?

A: There are three categories of asylum seekers; those who have applied for asylum, those who are in the processing stage and those who have obtained asylum.

Those who have obtained asylum are citizens of that country. They will not be issued Sri Lankan passports.

But those who are in the other two categories can be issued, but not passports. They will be given a travel document to get back to Sri Lanka. We will issue a passport once they get back and deal with their problems here.

May be he was forced to leave due to problems in the past but the situation may have changed now. So he is welcome to come back. But we cannot give him a passport and let him travel to another country and tarnish the image of Sri Lanka once again. That is a very fair decision in my opinion.

We have given dual citizenship to asylum seekers in the past but in the future there will be no more. That person has sought asylum because Sri Lanka is not good for him to live. Then there is no reason for him to seek citizenship here. There are a lot of economic migrants who claim asylum. We don't welcome such people.

Produced by Lake House Copyright © 2011 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.