Filipinos queue up outside the Philippine Consulate in Al Ghusais for passport renewal. A notice outside the gate states that from March 20, walk-in applicants for passport renewals will only be accepted after 1pm. Image Credit: © XPRESS/Jay B. Hilotin

A pre-dawn queue of Filipinos waiting to apply for e-passports has become a common scene at the Philippines Consulate in Al Ghusais ever since the Philippines government made it mandatory for passport holders to have the new machine-readable, tamper-proof passports.

People without appointments queue up as early as midnight to the pre-dawn listing for the 30 walk-in passport application slots. Those who make it to the list will stay in the line until the consulate opens at 8.30am. Those who don't will have to make time for a next-day rendezvous.

The wait is as bad for those wanting fixed appointments: There is a three-month headway before they can submit their passport application and have their biometrics taken. It takes another four weeks before the passports are released.

I had the misfortune of going through the painful passport renewal process at the consulate two weeks ago. It is a lack of order that is the problem. There is no automated machine to issue priority numbers, so it's a first-shove first-serve affair as soon as the gate opens.

On top of that, certain consulate staff members condone people who queue outside the gate at unholy hours to make it to the list of walk-in applicants. A woman waiting outside the gate with me before the 8.30am opening said she missed her chance at the walk-in waitlist. She was there since 2am. A consulate staff member told me that the waitlist was supposed to be filled up starting from 8.30am. But why was it circulated so early?

If you want to make a complaint, the hotline offers cold comfort. No one ever picks up the phone. Email? I sent suggestions/complaints to the consulate weeks ago, but have still not gotten any reply.

To date, there are 200 regular applicants who are attended to on a daily basis, plus 30 walk-in applicants. The Philippines Consulate only has three biometric machines to process these applications, and a few staff members dedicated to passport services.

A different experience

The consulate should take a cue from the seamless passport renewal services offered by the Philippines Embassy in Abu Dhabi, which processes the same number of passport applications per day with the same resources, but at a fraction of the hassle.

I know because I drove to Abu Dhabi after my frustration in the Dubai consulate. To my relief, it was worth the time and petrol.

Priority numbers are given to applicants on a first-come, first-serve basis. Anyone wanting to get an appointment has to make a personal appearance. The book keeper is strict; there is no way you can log someone else's name in that list. The encoders are fast, accurate and methodical.

And from 3pm, when the number of applicants start to thin out, they start entertaining walk-in applicants, who are also given priority numbers. And the embassy answers emails inquiries, too.

The consulate should really streamline its passport renewal process for optimum customer service. Start by posting visible and accurate information about the passport renewal procedure in the premises. And if you can't get a machine to issue priority numbers, then hire staff to start handing out priority numbers to people on a first-come, first-serve basis. Discourage the pre-dawn queue by sticking to an official timetable.

Filipino expatriates have suggested outsourcing passport services, like what the Indian consulate has done, but Philippine law reportedly prevents the outsourcing of such services. However, given the high number of applications and staff shortage, the government should rethink this rule.

The public must also do its part. Respect standard business hours at the consulate.

While people are still queuing up or sleeping outside the consulate gate at unholy hours, the Philippine Consulate in Dubai must realise it is time for a wake up call. Don't wait for more disgruntled people to drive to the next emirate for better service and say, "That was definitely worth the time and petrol!"