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Stolen passports lead to frustrating red tape

Jan 1, 2003

The story of intrigue involving the "loss" of a passport in Turkey ("Passport mistake leads to subterfuge," May/June 2000, Issue No. 106) reminds me of our experiences when we had our passports stolen in Malaysia. We could not find any published guidelines on how to get our official papers reissued. We had to feel our way forward. Several authorities gave us misleading information, which led to time-consuming forays to various agencies that proved to be totally unnecessary. We hope that an account of our experience will provide others with a forewarning if faced with a similar situation.

To set the scene, we were at The Net Internet Café at the Center Point Complex in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo. We were fully engrossed at the computer and did not notice someone taking one of our backpacks, which was located on the floor at our feet beside us. As soon as the theft was realized, we reported the incident to the shopping complex security guards. They did nothing except advise us to go directly to the police station and file a report. My husband, Terry, wrote out a detailed list of what was missing, and we received an officially typed police report the next day. This document is essential and, from what the policeman said, was all that was required to obtain new passports at our respective embassies.

As there are no embassies in Kota Kinabalu, we had to fly to Kuala Lumpur to visit both the American Embassy and Australian High Commission. We made reservations with Malaysian Airlines and they assured us we could travel without passports as long as we arrived at the old airport (domestic terminal) in Kuala Lumpur. They were adamant that the police report would be sufficient for immigration purposes. We arrived at the airport, checked in, had our boarding passes in hand, and proceeded to Immigration. It was here that Immigration advised us that we could not travel without passports, even though we were traveling solely within Malaysia. We were directed to the immigration office at the airport. The main problem here, we discovered, was that we did not enter the country at Kota Kinabalu by air. We actually arrived in Sandakan via the ferry from Zamboanga, Philippines, and no local record of our arrival was available.

Next we were directed to the main immigration office in the city, which required that we cancel our flight and have our baggage removed from the airplane and held in storage (under the mistaken impression that we could catch a later flight that same day). At the immigration office we quickly learned that we would not be able to depart that day. There was no way we could prove we entered the country legally, so they had to fax Sandakan for a copy of the arrivals list for the day we claimed to have entered. This procedure took two days, after which we were issued a special pass at a cost of RM20 ($5 U.S.) each and valid for less than two weeks. They did not ask us how long we intended to stay in the country, and we naturally assumed this pass was purely to enable us to travel to Kuala Lumpur.

By now we were into the Chinese New Year holidays and everything was closed for four days. So we bided our time in Kota Kinabalu enjoying the holidays with lion dances and firecrackers. We took this time to have a friend in the Philippines break into our boat, locate our birth certificates and marriage certificate, scan them, and send the graphic files to us as e-mail attachments. When we rebooked our flight to Kuala Lumpur for the following week, we were informed we would be charged a RM50 ($12.50 U.S.) each cancellation fee! We pleaded our case at the Malaysian Airlines head office. As we were given misleading information by their staff when we made the original bookings, they did waive the fee.

Finally arriving in Kuala Lumpur, at both the American Embassy and Australian High Commission we hit a small snag in getting our passports replaced. They wanted to see copies of our passports (which had been stolen) or original birth certificates (though certified copies would have sufficed). We were both issued with temporary passports (validity one year) as we only had the scanned copies of our documents.

Though the Australian High Commission issued my passport the next day, in Terry's case the U.S. Embassy spent three days attempting to get verification via e-mail in order to issue a 10- year passport, after which we elected to have a one-year passport issued immediately.

We now had passports in hand. Both embassies advised us to go directly to the immigration office for our entry stamps. At the immigration office, we filled out the necessary forms (purchased for $0.25 each) and waited more than an hour, only to be told that our previously issued special passes would be sufficient for travel back to Kota Kinabalu and our passports would be stamped there!

There was no immigration check from KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport). On arrival at the airport in Kota Kinabalu, we had to explain our situation to immigration, but there was no problem.

Back to the immigration department in Kota Kinabalu for what we thought would be a simple procedurehaving our passports stamped. Wrong! We were sent from the 6th floor to the 4th floor where we had to fill in an "extension of special pass" form. After three hours of frustration, with five officials involved, we were finally issued our extended special pass (at the cost of $5 U.S. each once again, plus the fee for two more forms) but valid for one month this time.

At times we certainly felt like we were the victims and were being penalized for someone else's wrong doing. However, we did keep our sense of humor and, overall, thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Sabah.

Sandy and Terry Sargent are full-time voyagers on the yacht Valhalla, presently in the Philippines.