BEIRUT — Lebanese authorities have stopped accepting applications for passport renewals, saying they are unable to keep up with demand as the country’s deepening economic crisis urges people to leave the country.
The Lebanese General Security has said it will suspend passport renewals starting this week and that its inventory of passports will only cover current applicants.
The announcement has raised fears that the authorities are determined to prevent people from leaving Lebanon and are restricting their freedom of movement.
Maj Gen Abbas Ibrahim, Director General of General Security, said: “The passport application platform has appointments scheduled until April 2023 and the passports will be delivered to all those who have already applied by that date.”
Lebanese have been rushing to obtain biometric passports since 2020, with applications for renewal ten times higher than in previous years.
Expecting passport fees to rise, locals rushed to get new documents, while expats used their vacation in Lebanon to renew their passports for around US$35, avoiding paying the US$200 or US$300 required were required at Lebanese embassies abroad.
A study by the Directorate-General for General Security found that 69 percent of people received passports without using them, and that about 20,000 citizens renewed their passports in 2021 despite having two years before their documents expired.
The study also found that more than 15,000 passports were processed but never claimed by their owners.
General Security said: “As of 2020, our main and regional centers had 10 times more passport applications than in previous years, impacting our passport inventory.”
Brig. General Security’s Gen Mounir Akiki told Arab News that the rising number of applications and the dwindling inventory forced the authorities to act.
In February, new terms for passport renewals were enacted that some felt were impossible.
Requirements included valid residency abroad, a valid visa affixed to the passport to be extended, an embassy appointment within one month of the application being made, or evidence of continued study abroad or medical reports if the passport is to be extended the continuation of treatment abroad or the presentation of a signed employment contract and the necessary documents if the purpose is to work abroad.
In addition, the biometric passport fee has been increased from 300,000 Lebanese pounds (US$200) to 600,000 Lebanese pounds (valid for five years) and from 500,000 Lebanese pounds to 1.2 million Lebanese pounds (valid for 10 years).
Akiki said problems with the passport were also behind the General Security decision.
“In 2021, recognizing the impact of the economic crisis in Lebanon, we signed a deal with the French company that prints Lebanese passports worth US$12 million in return for printing 1 million passports, but the company asked for a wire transfer of a specified amount as a letter of credit to start printing and according to the money and credit code in Lebanon, contracts must be signed in Lebanese pounds and not dollars.”
He added: “When we signed the contract with the French company, the dollar exchange rate was based on the official rate, i.e. 1,500 Lebanese pounds per dollar, and there was no central bank-affiliated exchange platform setting rates according to financial market movements.”
This affected the continuity of work. Akiki claimed that Ibrahim urged several politicians to end the crisis, but to no avail.
According to Akiki, passes will no longer be available after April 2023 if the issue is not resolved by then.
On the possibility of renewing old passports as an alternative, Akiki said: “We can’t do that. The old passport has been canceled and can no longer be used. This decision will be made by the International Civil Aviation Organization.”
Akiki said the contract with the French company was worth around 22 billion Lebanese pounds based on the official exchange rate.
But he said the value would rise to around 300 billion Lebanese pounds according to the central bank’s Sayrafa platform rate (around 22,000 Lebanese pounds per dollar).
The Lebanon Crisis Observatory of the American University of Beirut predicts a wave of emigration from Lebanon in the coming years.
An important indicator is that 77 percent of young people are considering emigration, while skilled workers and skilled workers are also migrating in search of better working conditions and income.
Thousands of Lebanese, including teachers, doctors, nurses and university graduates, left the country two years ago, and the number of exits rose after the Beirut port blast.
The World Bank estimates that it will take Lebanon at least 12 years to return to 2017 GDP levels.
This will put pressure on hundreds of thousands to leave the country to invest, work, study and retire abroad, the bank said.