Forfeited holidays, canceled flights and fines for delayed residency permits are among some of the problems facing British expats in Qatar this season, due to a severe backlog in passport processing in the United Kingdom.
The British government has pledged this week to take action to combat the problem, which has affected some of the 20,000 British expats living here, and thousands more living in the Gulf and elsewhere.
Addressing the UK’s House of Commons yesterday, the British Home Secretary Theresa May admitted that the country’s passport service is “dealing with the highest demand for passports in 12 years.”
The UK is currently receiving 350,000 more applications than normal for this time of year, resulting in significant delays for applicants.
No breakdown of the figures has been released. But the problem appeared to have begun in March, around the same time that the UK government changed the way passports are processed for British expats.
UK regional passport offices around the world have closed over the past few months, and citizens living abroad must now send their applications to the UK for processing.
Theresa May told the British parliament yesterday that the offices had been closed “to provide better value for money” and “to ensure more consistency of service and security checks.”
Unlike those living in the UK, British expats cannot apply for fast-track processing. And many have been waiting more than eight weeks for their applications to be completed.
This poses problems especially for British expats with babies in Doha, as Qatar fines parents who do not secure a residency permit for their newborns within 60 days. An RP cannot be processed without a passport.
As a result of mounting complaints and an intense focus on the issue by domestic media, the British government yesterday announced a series of measures to ameliorate the problem.
- Allowing expats to extend their passports’ validity by 12 months at their consular offices;
- Opening up emergency travel document application procedures at embassies for expats who wish to travel to the UK. These documents can serve in place of a new or renewed passport for expat children; and
- Allowing citizens within the UK to upgrade their application to a fast-track one for free.
No detailed information about the new embassy procedures has been disclosed yet, although May said that expats would have to provide “comprehensive proof” of their parentage before the documents were granted.
In a statement sent to Doha News, the British Embassy in Doha said that it was “aware of the significant delays, and the inconvenience” being caused by the passport backlog:
“In particular, we are very concerned about the unnecessary stress this situation is putting on families with newborn babies and we are seeking solutions for this urgently.
The British Embassy is in close contact with both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and HM Passport Office, seeking suitable ways to solve the current passport problems, and we would advise anyone who has already submitted a passport application (be it a renewal or first time application), to please contact our consular team in the first instance: email@example.com
We can issue an Emergency Travel Document to a British National if they have not received their replacement passport within the specified time frame.”
The UK government is advising citizens to allow at least six weeks for passport renewal and at least eight weeks for first-time applications.
Frustrated travel plans
Many Qatar-based British expats said their problems have been compounded by confusing information from the UK passport office. Speaking to Doha News, Kate Halsall said:
“We’ve been waiting 10 weeks for our newborn son’s passport. We applied online on March 11, supporting documents were received April 2. Every time we call our application has a different status!
We believe we are being fined QR10 for every day over 60 days, so we’re up for quite a sum already. Very frustrating as we have over 5,000 Euros worth of travel booked and family flying in from as far as Australia to meet our little boy.”
Some expats also said that they had found the British Embassy to be unresponsive and unable to offer support, so instead contacted the Member of Parliament (MP) in their local area in the UK for help.
It is understood, however, that the British Ambassador to Qatar, Nicholas Hopton, has now offered to meet with concerned expats to discuss the issue.
Finally, some Qatar expats, like Scot Kirsteen Watson, report that their passport applications appear to have been fast-tracked as a result of publicity surrounding their case.
“We have been waiting 9 weeks now, although since I contacted my local MP and a journalist from Scotland, my passport is apparently now on its way, although I’m not sure how long it will take to get an RP, and I’m guessing we’ll be fined.”
Have you been affected by the backlog? Thoughts?