Putting the Grate Back in Immigration.

Visa HellLast week I had to go to immigration to renew my visa. I’d been there a couple of months ago, and although the process was long-winded and expensive, it didn’t cause me too much pain. Therefore when I revisited the office last week, in the Intramuros district of Manila, I was entirely unprepared for the seven circles of hell which awaited.

Last time I’d got there at around 11, and had to wait until 3.30 for my visa, which had effectively taken up a whole day. This time I hopped into a taxi at 7.30, before the inevitable traffic jams had a chance to build up, and was there at 8am when they opened. My first surprise was that I wasn’t allowed in the building. At all. Two months ago I’d had no problems when I turned up wearing shorts, but since then they’d put up a cheaply photocopied notice saying “No shorts or sandals”, and were refusing to let anyone thusly attired in the building.

Seeing as this is a country where I can go into the Mandarin and Peninsula hotels and top restaurants and bars wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, this struck me as a strange development. In addition, the country is hot, and the Immigration department is fairly run-down and has poor air-conditioning. As I complained, whined and grumbled outside, I was in good company. There were around 20 of us outside in the same position. We filled out our forms and tried to figure out how to proceed.

The guards outside were clearly enjoying themselves. They offered us a number of options.

  1. Go home and come back with trousers and shoes (Cross town in rush hour — around two hours if I’m lucky. )
  2. Go to the shops and buy some (this particular advice was given with a recommendation to go to the port area, which wasn’t even open at that time in the morning).
  3. Pay one of the guys hanging around to process the application for me. Aha, so that was it. A scam to get some more money out of us.

When I discounted these three options as untenable, I was offered a fourth option. The guy with the gun who had been shouting “STAY OUTSIDE!” to a bunch of confused and nervous looking Korean tourists, leant closer to me and said “COME BACK TOMORROW”, in a particularly aggressive tone, fingering his gun. He looked surprised when I retaliated with “WHAT did you just say?”, and backed off a little. Obviously I’d interrupted his playful terrorism of innocent tourists.

By this time I’d arranged for my a friend to take time off work and drive across Manila in the rush hour traffic to deliver trousers and shoes to me, thus spoiling their day as well. I talked to the other guy for a bit longer and established that I could get someone else to hand in the application for me. I double checked: “So I can ask … that guy over there to hand this form in for me?” He nodded.

I approached the other tourist who was dressed within the “rules”, and he agreed to take the form in for me. He queued for 5 minutes and then came back. “They’re having none of it mate,” he said, “They need to see you in person.” I involved the guy who had told me this was OK. “He said it was OK,” pointing to the guard, “Didn’t you?”. He agreed that he had, and that it was still OK. He made some signals to the cashier. The tourist tried again for me, but soon returned. “They won’t take it.”

So what was I to do now? I complained at length to the guy who had told me it was OK, and eventually he caved in and took it inside himself. He returned after 3 minutes with my documents and an invoice. The invoice was for P 3030 — double what the visa had cost last time. And in fact it hadn’t solved the problem, because I still had to go inside and pay, which he wouldn’t do.

I retired to a local cafe to wait for my trousers and examine the invoice:

  • Visa application fee – P 500
  • Visa application – P 1000 (yes these two are itemised separately to increase the cost)
  • Legal research fee – P 30 (good value that one …)
  • Express Fee – P 500 (Well I hadn’t asked for that, but I supposed it was OK as I didn’t want to be hanging around too long)

These previous items were the items I had seen before. Now it got intriguing.

  • Certificate Fee – P 500
  • Express Fee (Certificate) – P 500

The certificate was a piece of paper printed on a cheap inkjet, which said they’d checked my name against a blacklist (presumably the legal research alluded to above). The Express fee … I’ve no idea why that needed an express fee on top of the express fee already charged – the whole process had only taken the guy 3 minutes after all. In fact, yes I do know what all this was about – it was another scheme to extort money from foreigners. (I’ll do a post on the Airport Fee some other time). On the certificate it said that I’d requested this certificate for VIMS clearance. I asked a travel agent what VIMS clearance was. They had no idea. “Its new” was all they were able to tell me. Apparently the Immigration Department hasn’t even told travel agents about their fiendish new scheme. There is, at the time of writing, no mention of it on their website either. (http://www.immigration.gov.ph)

It was now 10am and my trousers had arrived. Time to go and pay for it all and finish this off, so I could get on with my life. I walked up to the entrance. “Nice trousers” said the guard, trying to goad me a little further.

Inside there were 5 cashiers, and only one seemed to be operating. The queue was about 10 people long, and no-one was queueing at any of the other booths. I joined the back and started to shuffle forward. By the time I got to the front, there was only one person in the queue behind me, which seemed odd. As I reached the counter, the lady found something urgent to do with papers in front of her, and staunchly avoided eye contact. I waited politely for one minute, two minutes, three minutes. “Hello” I said. Nothing. “Hello?,” a bit louder, but no reaction still. “Hello … Hello? … Hello?”, I put my mouth right up to the hole in the glass and screamed “HELLO?”: hard to ignore, yet she still didn’t look up or acknowledge my presence.

There was now one guy in the queue behind me. He looked at my papers, and told me to queue in the next lane, where there was no cashier. I was determined to get this lady’s attention. I dropped my papers through the glass, and they landed on her pile of documents. “Where do I pay this?” I asked. She finally aknowledged that there was a person in front of her, and pointed to the next line with her lips, returning my papers, and immediately talking to the guy behind me.

I queued up at the next line and waited for someone to appear. After 2 minutes a guy turned up. “Next counter,” he said.

Now somewhat fuming, I queued up at the next counter. When I got there, I found that indeed it was the right place to pay. I asked what the VIMS fee was. “Its new” she said. “But what is it? What does VIMS stand for? Why am I being charged for it? I didn’t have to pay this last time, so could you explain why my visa, which used to cost 1500 Pesos two months ago, is now 3000 Pesos?” She shrugged. I handed over the money. She handed back the documents. I looked in the passport. “There’s no visa in here,” I ventured. “Next window,” she said.

By now, visibly shaking with anger I moved to the next queue. A guy was sitting there with a large rubber stamp and a pile of passports. He ignored me. This time I dropped my papers onto his desk immediately and he looked at them. “3030 Pesos,” he said. Fighting to control the red mist seeping across my field of vision I told him that I’d just paid at the previous window, as indicated by the receipt which was the uppermost of the sheaf of papers he was holding, and that I’d like to get my visa at his earliest convenience. “Come back at 1.30,” he said, giving me back my receipt.

“But what about the express fee, you’ve charged me P 500 for? Twice?” I was now hyperventilating. “Come back at 1.30,” he repeated. “That is the express.”

I found my way outside, numb, furious, shaking and defeated. I returned two hours later for my passport and retrieved it after only queueing twice. I would have to return in 38 days’ time to do the same thing again. Who knows what fees they might have introduced by then.

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