May 24, 2022
From The Public Source (Lebanon)

Dreadful Process in Line, Online, and Abroad

Lebanon is experiencing its third wave of mass emigration in its history, due to the economic crisis. Throughout 2021, long queues in front of many of the 54 General Security offices across the country would often last well into the night.

One October evening, at 8:00 p.m., Lynn Hodeib joined a queue at the General Security headquarters in Adlieh. At 4:00 am — after eight exhausting hours of screaming, cutting lines, and arguments with guards — officers wrote down the names of the people who would get an appointment, and dismissed the rest. Lynn was the last to make the cut.

“Some people came from Akkar with their toddlers for this, multiple times, and were sent back. It felt horrible,” Lynn recalls. “I heard a woman scream because they didn’t give her a number; another man just sat on the ground and stared at the wall … I remember writing about it and crying on the way back.”

But things did not end there. She was told to come back an hour later to receive her appointment number. Drained of all energy but unwilling to lose her spot, Lynn decided to take a 30-minute nap in her car and made it back just as they were calling out her name. She was asked to leave again and come back at 10:00 a.m. for the actual appointment.

Hassan — who plans to leave the country as soon as he can — was less lucky. He was able to obtain an appointment from the Choueifat branch on his fourth attempt. He says the first three times he was turned away either because the officer in charge was not in or because the center was out of blank passports.

When Hassan finally got to his appointment, the system at the center was down. “We sat for four hours waiting for the system to work… It didn’t,” he says. Other people who spoke with The Public Source experienced other logistical issues at the Choueifat branch. They were told the fluctuating electricity supply had damaged the biometric photo machines.

Hassan went back three days in a row, in vain, and was giving up, until they called him back a week later. Even then, bad connectivity caused the process to take longer than it should have.

“They’re just very inefficient and slow…” the 23-year old digital strategist says.

Elie Abi Khalil, a 24-year old cancer biology student who requested the “expedited” process, noted the irony of having to wait for hours and being led on a wild goose chase to retrieve his passport.

In the first three months of 2022, the online process was meant to alleviate some of the frustrations and humiliations in GDGS queues. However, the online waiting list quickly became so long that on April 19, the earliest open slot in Beirut was in October 2022 for regular renewals and — paradoxically — in January 2023 for expedited requests.

Nada N. was relatively lucky. When she logged onto the General Security platform on March 19, she found a slot less than a month later, on April 13.

During a visit to the local municipal authority (mokhtar), he informed her that new requirements had been introduced: applicants needed to show proof of residency, education, or medical treatment abroad; have proof of a visa appointment at a foreign embassy or consulate; or a plane ticket. 

In anticipation, Nada had a travel agent book her a fake plane ticket and hotel reservation in Turkey which does not require visas from Lebanese citizens. Once at the General Security office in Adlieh, she was indeed asked to show the bookings in order to be let in.

“It was very easy because my papers were ready,” she says. Had she not been warned, however, she would have lost her appointment.

According to Frangieh, by not informing the public, General Security fails to meet the basic rules or social conventions of forming and maintaining a relationship between a government body and its citizens: the principles of legal security and legitimate trust.

“These principles … necessitate that [the government body] takes transitional measures to allow people to organize and prepare themselves,” Frangieh explains. Instead, “[General Security] release circulars that are implemented directly, and they do not grant [the public] notice or time to prepare.”

Frangieh also explained that General Security has no legal jurisdiction to place conditions on obtaining a passport. According to Lebanese law, the cabinet decides which documents are required to receive a passport.

Even as some Lebanese have managed to leave the country, the passport renewal process abroad is still tiresome.

Ali Lezeik, a PhD candidate in Hanover, Germany, needed to renew his passport for his residency permit. In November 2021, he drove three hours to the Lebanese embassy in Berlin.

His options were a one-year passport, which would be a hassle to renew for his residency every year, or a ten-year passport, which would cost him €530—around $560.

“I was so pissed. I didn’t know I was signing up for this. I had to pay three to four months’ worth of savings to get a shitty passport,” the 27-year-old said, frustrated.

Ali says he felt pressured, as one of the employees at the embassy wagged the credit card machine in his face and said “Yallah, get the ten-year passport.”

“I felt it was a scam; a way for the government to rip off the people who are living abroad […] but I have to accept it because I’m Lebanese.”

To avoid the exorbitant costs abroad, Michelle Ellis wanted to renew her passport, which was five months from expiry, while visiting Lebanon from the UK in February. The earliest slot she could find was after her booked return.

“I thought I would have to cancel my flight,” the 27-year-old recalls. “I called a thousand times and no one answered. When they did, they kept transferring me from one person to another and hanging up on me.”

Desperate, Ellis reached out to a personal connection and was able to renew her passport on time. It was only when she went that she was informed the fees had increased since she had last looked up the requirements.

“Some people didn’t know this and didn’t have enough money on them to pay. They had to leave and make a new appointment to come back because the price increase had not yet been announced. They just tell you when you get there,” she tells The Public Source.

She paid L.L. 1,200,000 for a 10-year passport, and an additional  L.L. 1,050,000 for the expedited process — L.L. 2,250,000 in total (around $70).

Living under a government that operates based on neoliberal policies, clientelism, and negligence of basic rights will push people to their last resorts — be it internal connections or desperately boarding life-threatening boats — as there is no standard mode of operation.