What you need to know:
- Due to increased forgeries of the Ugandan passport, many travellers have either been subjected to overly strict scrutiny by immigration officials or denied entry into China, India, Singapore, among other East Asian countries.
A Ugandan children’s choir on performance tour of select countries in Southeast Asia learnt the hard way—of the growing blemish to the Ugandan passport—last November after they were denied entry into Singapore without any reason.
World over, discretion to allow entry into any foreign territory, with or without a visa, lies with immigration officials at any point of entry.
The choir group (name withheld on request) was connecting to the island country in maritime southeast Asia from neighbouring Malaysia. Singapore was previously part of the Malaysian Federation but broke away in 1965, owing to irreconcilable differences. Since then, the two nations have enjoyed cordial bilateral relations but not without tension.
Listed among first world countries, Singapore is among the top industrial and tourism hubs in Asia with more than six million people visiting in 2022. The city state also has some of the strictest immigration laws, while immigration as a policy issue remains polarising in national politics.
Initially, the coordinators of the choir’s tours tagged — loosely thought — the denial of entry was either linked to “politics” between the two countries or the group’s decision to connect to Singapore by road — via the Johor straits by which more than 450,000 people move between the two countries.
“Still, it didn’t make any sense. A traveller for whatever reasons can connect via any allowed entry points,” one person knowledgeable about the incident narrated to this newspaper, adding, “We connected the dots later.”
Around the same time, reports emerged of the increased scrutiny of especially Ugandan ordinary passport holders by Singaporean immigration authorities. Uganda and Singapore have reciprocal free visa arrangements. And the government of Uganda issues three types of passports; diplomatic, official and ordinary.
It also emerged that Ugandan diplomats in New Delhi, India, which oversees Singapore, had months earlier been flying back and forth for engagements with Singaporean authorities after a national of a West African country had entered Singapore with a Ugandan passport and disappeared.
The reciprocal visa arrangement allows Ugandans to visit Singapore for short stays of 30 days.
The said national of the West African country was eventually apprehended but for genuine Ugandan travellers with ordinary passports, this was a dent which meant increased scrutiny at immigration points including being quizzed, sometimes unnecessarily, about their intentions of visiting, or being denied entry.
One Ugandan living and working next door in Malaysia for two decades and with lengthy business travel history to Singapore, told of many instances of being scrutinised than necessary “out of the blue and needlessly the whole of last year”.
“Not so much this year, but I heard other Ugandans were experiencing the same at some point, which ostensibly must be linked to that passport fiasco,” the Ugandan national, who requested not to be named, intimated.
Another Ugandan working in Singapore for four years recounted a similar experience.
“All this is related to the so many stories abound about the misuse of the Ugandan passport, especially by West Africans. How do they acquire them? For anyone who knows Uganda, guessing [the root cause of the problem] mustn’t be hard,” the individual added.
Singapore is known to have strict laws and tough penalties applicable to both locals and foreigners to maintain social order. In June 2021, the Ugandan passport bizarrely made news in the country after a Singaporean national was busted at immigration for entering the country he left in 1995 using a Ugandan passport procured in China.
The Immigration department details on its website that Ugandan passports “may only” be held by citizens of Uganda, and are processed only in Kampala through the Directorate of Immigration Control and at three missions abroad: Washington DC, London, and Pretoria.
In Kampala, the immigration department spokesperson, Mr Simon Mundeyi, downplayed foreigners acquiring passports through dubious means known to run deep across the cloistered halls of passport offices in the Ministry of Internal Affairs on Old Port Bell Road.
“Staff fraud, yes, but that was a thing of the past,” Mr Mundeyi said in response to our inquiries.
“To be able to enroll for the new passport, you have to personally appear at the office. You are subjected to an interview, undergo biometric capture and in there, we have Automatic Finger Integration System. If you have ever gotten a passport and you want to fraudulently acquire a second one, your fingerprints automatically pop up,” he said.
“About our officers being involved in fraudulent cases, in the past, we had a few cases and action was taken. Some are no longer with us. With the new passport, I have not sighted any official involved,” he added.
Yet still, across southeast Asia — the region bestriding from east India to mainland China and northwest of mainland Australia — the Ugandan passport, according to diplomatic sources and first-hand accounts, is one of those routinely put on radar.
In travels course from China to Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore, this author encountered experiences and firsthand narratives, some unpleasant and intrusive, of Ugandan passport holders, among them those living and working in the region, being denied entry and or questioned more intensely.
An immigration official at one of the international airports wondered: “How come your country’s passport is easy to get?”
The Paris-based Secure Identity Alliance, in a 2021 study titled, “Passport fraud trends and ways to combat them”, noted that in 2020 alone, nearly 100 million travel documents were reported lost or stolen.
It is unclear how many of these may have got into the hands of rogue elements, presenting the risk of identity alteration.
“The consequences of illegally modified or reproduced travel documents are many and varied. From reputational damage to the issuing country and document manufacturer, to the numerous onward possibilities such as financial crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism, the creation and use of false travel papers can have an impact that goes far beyond personal inconvenience,” the study detailed.
On July 6, immigration officials at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippine capital, Manila, burst a Ugandan national using a fake passport to enter the country.
The 28-year-old flew to Manila aboard an AirAsia flight from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The country’s Bureau of Immigration established her passport to be counterfeited and immediately sent her back to the point of origin.
Infamous in East Asia
Such incidents expose travellers with genuine travel documents and good intentions to being overly scrutinised or blocked, triggering concerns about profiling.
“Yes, it does affect holders of genuine passports,” admitted Internal Affairs ministry spokesman Mundeyi.
“There was a time when citizens holding genuine Ugandan passports would not be allowed to check in to hotels in Guangzhou and some parts of Beijing. You’d go there with a Ugandan passport and they would subject you to a very thorough scrutiny. It was difficult,” he said.
He added: “Personally, I had travelled to Guangzhou via Hong Kong. When I reached Hong Kong, they put me inside for six hours because of such stories about our passport. And that was because the integrity of our passport was being damaged. Ugandans would be required to, on top of the passport, produce other documentation such as the national ID.”
In Beijing, China, one Ugandan diplomat narrated being woken up by a late-night telephone call last year from local authorities. The purpose of the caller was to verify the details of an incoming traveller.
“The traveller was Nigerian but had a genuine Ugandan passport. Even to the Chinese authorities, the guy was immediately suspect,” the diplomat recounted.
After roughly 10 minutes of conference call, the passport holder could not state his home village or answer basic questions about Uganda.
Multiple diplomatic sources and other government officials told Monitor that Ugandan passports — both genuine and fake — are mostly peddled by Nigerians.
Between 2018 and 2019, Chinese authorities conducted sweep operations during which 80 African nationals, majority being Nigerians, were found with Ugandan passports.
“Diplomatically, they had to first do a verification with the government of Uganda. When we went to Beijing, only 20 were Ugandans. Sixty were non-Ugandans, but holding our passports,” one official noted.
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There were many West Africans using indigenous names. But when we subjected them to some basic interviews, like language, they failed. They confessed that Ugandans sold them the passport booklets, who then reported them lost,” Mr Mundeyi said of the operation four years ago.
A Ugandan diplomat in Kuala Lumpur noted: “Why and how they acquire the Ugandan passport easily and not that of Rwanda, Kenya, or even of troubled places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo is really a puzzle, which the immigration department in Kampala must step up to.”
In most scenarios, authorities indicated that Ugandans using phony identities, or foreigners using genuine but illegally acquired passports, have been lured or involved in the dark underworld of drug smuggling and prostitution rings --- both of which run deep in East Asia.
Some Ugandans living in China narrated being surveilled while attempting to visit nearby countries such as Malaysia where holders of faked Ugandan passports have ended in trouble. Our investigations reveal a seemingly booming underground sex trade in capitals such as Kuala Lumpur, where some Ugandan women moonlight.
Elsewhere, in cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai of India, and Bangkok in Thailand, prostitution, which thrives with tourism, rewards more.
Mr Mundeyi defended that Uganda’s passport has integrity and respect internationally “and those [foreign nationals] whose passports are blacklisted want to get our books because you can use it anywhere”.
“But we have improved and keep improving [the security features] and that is the reason you see us change passports from machine readable, to electronic, so that they are not forged. Even these new ones, when new technology pops up, we shall change,” he added.
In India, according to multiple accounts, the situation has grown “dire” with immigrations officials interrogating and frisking most holders of ordinary Ugandan passports and their luggage.
Diplomatic sources in New Delhi intimated that Uganda has been flagged by Indian authorities as “a conduit for drugs”, meaning a transit point for drug traffickers.
Investigations by authorities in Kampala reveal otherwise; a shift from Uganda being a conduit to turning as the origin or destination for the criminal enterprises. Dozens of Ugandans, especially women, including a 65-year-old caught recently, are incarcerated in India on drug trafficking charges.
Preliminary investigations done by Indian authorities show that the drug kingpins, who are mainly West Africans nationals, are working with Ugandans involved in labour export.
“The targets are mostly the desperate ones and women. They force them to swallow the drug pellets or sneak it in their luggage after clearing through customs at Entebbe International Airport,” a senior official appraised about the matter told this newspaper.
From accounts, the official noted, most victims are flown through either Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates or late-night flights out of Bole International Airport in Ethiopia.
“The women, like the norm is, are promised jobs. Many of course don’t suspect what they are being sucked into; either unknowingly transporting drugs or, upon reaching their destinations in the foreign countries, being forced into prostitution,” the official said.
This, according to Ugandan diplomats in New Delhi, stains the integrity of the Ugandan passport on which they travel.
“At the airports’ immigrations, officials suspect anyone carrying an ordinary Ugandan passport,” the diplomat added, referring to other types of Ugandan travel documents.
While Mr Mundeyi ruled out fraud in acquiring passports, at one of the popular hangouts in central Makati, then financial hub in metropolitan Manila, a national of a North African country — claiming to be in labour export business — detailed “useful contacts in Kampala” who expedite acquisition of Ugandan passports for girls destined for the Middle East to work, among others, as maids.
“In Uganda, money does everything,” said the individual, asking not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Passport fraud — which includes forged booklets, altered identity, use of stolen passports or that of the deceased or their particulars — remains a global cancer networked by largely money-motivated criminal gangs and pariah individuals.
In this fold are drug lords and their acolytes, human traffickers, terrorists and political outcasts.
At the same time, some countries are employing cutting-edge technology, including complex laser perforations or microchips with photos and fingerprints to detect forged documents.
*Additional reporting by Elizabeth Kamurungi