The hassles for Cambodians seeking travel documents start over a kilometer away from the central passport office.
As prospective applicants approach the compound in the capital’s Chbar Ampov district, they encounter an abundance of eager tuk-tuk and motorcycle-taxi drivers lining the road, all of whom seem to have the same question on their lips: “Do you want to get a passport made?”
If one of these solicitations is accepted, the scout will escort the applicant into the office and hand him or her over to a middleman known as a “helper” who, in turn, will likely be working for a passport official. The “helper” or his associated official will offer to steer the applicant through the application process—for a fee.
Often, this is presented as a de facto requirement. Application forms are placed in an out-of-the-way spot that makes them almost impossible for a new visitor to find. If a confused applicant asks for assistance, he will quickly be swooped upon by a “helper.” The $10 or $15 that applicants must pay for this service is usually split among the roadside scouts, the office-compound middlemen, and the government officials who preside over the patronage chain, multiple interviewees told VOA Khmer.
This might not sound like a lot, but on average 3,000 to 4,000 people apply for a passport at the Phnom Penh office every day, according to official Interior Ministry figures. Even by conservative estimates, this means tens of thousands of dollars in bribes could be collected daily, on top of the official fees for passports, which range from $100 to $200 and are already difficult to manage for many poor and middle-income Cambodians.
Problems with corruption and bribe-soliciting in the passport office have existed for years, but show no signs of abating.
San Chey, the executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability Cambodia, an anti-corruption advocacy group, said he had long observed these irregularities at the passport office and said they were an example of poor public service provision in Cambodia and a lack of oversight.
“We want a solution to end ‘extra payments’ for facilitating public services,” he said. He said the government should consider setting up an online passport application system as a move toward combating the problem.
Kounila Keo, a prominent local blogger, said a 2012 piece she wrote on corruption and inefficiency in the passport office was one of the most commented on her website’s history, showing how deeply the issue resonated with her readers.
“More and more Cambodians start to travel and they hate all this corruption and bribery they have to go through to get a passport,” she said.
An Easy Process Made Hard
On a recent visit by VOA Khmer to the government’s central passport office, not a single person could be seen filling in the application by himself, although it is simple and asks for only basic information. Every applicant was using a paid “helper” who had approached them in the compound.
These middlemen offer to help with every step of the passport application, from filing it, to get it approved, to receiving the finished document on time. Applicants who pay bribes are promised that their application will be expedited.
Sopheak, a motorcycle taxi driver, explained that he scouted out the roads on behalf of a particular passport official, keeping a close lookout for potential applicants to steer toward his patron.
“I have a brother who is an official over there,” he said, using a Khmer term that can refer to a close associate as well as a literal family member.
Sopheak explained that every time he referred a passport applicant to his “brother,” he was paid 5,000 riels (about $1.25).
“Do you have an appointment with someone over there?” Sopheak asked. “If not, I can take you there.” He then gave a journalist a card with his contact information.
Slightly closer to the passport office, Is Isa, 31, a tuk-tuk driver, was also plying his trade. He said he worked for a different official inside the passport office and had been recruited to direct potential applicants to that person.
“I sometimes get 10,000 riels [about $2.50] or $3 for one person,” he said.
He almost never sees people fill out the application by themselves, he added.
“It is hard to do it by yourself. You need to look for the application and you don’t know when your passport will be done,” he said. “But when you do it through an official, they fill out the document for you and just wait to get the passport when it is done.”
“People filling out the documents are their relatives or have connections,” said Is Isa.
He said officials set their own prices, although most fees converged around $10 for those with their own passport pictures and $15 for those without photographs.
“Some people charge higher than this,” Is Isa added. “But I don’t want our people to spend too much. I know what it’s like to pay too much and feel like you’re being cheated.
Giving “Help,” Getting “Tea Money”
Rather than being issued an official receipt at the end of the process, applicants using “helpers” are given the business card of the government official at the top of the patronage chain, and told to call back directly.
Sim Thany, who was named on one such business card circulating in the passport office compound, confirmed in a telephone interview with VOA Khmer that she had been accepting extra cash from applicants for years.
She said she asked for “only 10,000 to 20,000 riel” (about $2.50 to $5) per person, and in exchange would fill out the application and personally informed applicants when their passport was done. Sim Thany said she preferred to call this cash “tea money” or “tips” rather than a bribe.
“Normally, they are from the provinces so they don’t know how to fill out the documents. Therefore, I help fill out the form. We help them take the documents from one place to another,” she said.
“[We] need to photocopy and check the documents and take them from one place to another. So they ask us to help. So give me some money, I can help. We help them. They thank us. We try to help them, so they give it [money] to us for coffee and noodles. We accept that, but there is no pressure for them,” she said.
After the interview, she called a journalist back and asked him not to publish a story on this “tea money” after all.
“Who told you about this?” she asked. “Now can you meet me? Honestly, I am afraid that I have done something wrong.”
She was right. In all cases, it is against the law for public servants to take extra cash payments to “help” people applying for an official document, according to Preap Kol, country director for the anti-corruption group Transparency International.
Although there has been a decrease in demands for such “tips” in recent years, the practice is still widespread, he added.
“If they demand extra money over what the law sets, it is a crime related to corruption,” he said.
Rith, a 28-year-old resident of Phnom Penh who applied for his first passport earlier this year, said he was immediately approached by a crowd of prospective passport form-fillers when he entered the office. Confused, he agreed to pay for the service since the middlemen promised they could complete a passport for him more quickly than normal.
“I was charged $110 for one-month service,” about $10 over the listed price, he said. “And there was no receipt for me.”
Kolap, a 41-year-old woman living in Siem Reap province, had a similar story, saying that she traveled to Phnom Penh at the end of 2017 to apply for a passport to travel to Thailand. She struggled to figure out where the applications were located, as they seemed to be hidden.
A person she referred to as an “agent” approached her and offered to help fill out the form and expedite it for $110. If she did not use his services, she said, the agent warned that her passport would take a long time to obtain.
“It is not good since we need to pay over the price set by the government,” she said. “If we spent only the set price, it would reduce the cost. I already had to travel to Phnom Penh and spend money on transportation and accommodation.”
Prok May Oudom, spokesman, and deputy general director for the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Identification, which oversees the passport office, said he had never heard of passport officials asking for payments in exchange for helping applicants.
“I don’t know about this issue since there has not been any complaint to me, claiming that this or that official is taking extra money,” he said.
He admitted that there might be some middlemen who helped people make passports, but he said that since they were not government officials, he had no information on the topic.
“I will check this with the head of the department of passports,” he said, adding that people should not “say things” without proof, because it could affect officials’ careers.
However, Sophal Ear, a professor at Occidental College in California who studies the Cambodian bureaucracy, said corruption on the part of what he called a “circus of helpers” in the passport office was a longstanding problem.
And it is not one limited to the poor and uneducated. Ear said he himself had applied for two Cambodian passports and had felt obliged to pay “convenience fees” both times because the process was so difficult and confusing.
“Non-payers of bribes face…an army of people actively engaged in disrupting them from reaching the finish line,” he said.
Julia Wallace contributed reporting from Phnom Penh