Foreign students are still in the dark over the whereabouts of their passports, as the authorities and institutions sort out their visa renewals.
COLLEGE student Tham* was planning to be back home with his family in China for the Chinese New Year celebrations.
But after giving up his passport to renew his student visa, he is now stuck in limbo here — he has no idea where his passport is.
“I submitted my passport to the college last October, but I’m still waiting to get it back.
“The Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) told me that my college never submitted my passport to them, but when I checked with the college’s international office they told me that my passport was with the Immigration Department.
“I’ve had to cancel my flight tickets twice,” he said.
The EMGS is a one-stop centre for foreign student enrolment that was set up by the then Higher Education Ministry (now merged with the Education Ministry) last year.
Many foreign students reportedly faced delays in their visa renewals last year, with some claiming that their passports were withheld for months.
A number of students also sought help from The Star, particularly those who were trying to fly back home for the Christmas holidays last December.
Following the uproar, Deputy Education Minister P Kamalanathan said that students facing such problems could contact him directly via e-mail.
Thomas*, a Nigerian student studying in the Klang Valley, was one of those who made such an appeal.
Three months after submitting his passport to his college, he still had no word of his application.
No reasons given
“It was just a blur of going from the college and to the Immigration Department, and calling up EMGS in between — those whom I spoke to said they didn’t have my passport,” he said.
While Thomas eventually managed to get his passport back, he claimed that he was not told of the cause for the delay.
“I didn’t ask either; I was just so relieved to get it and go back home,” he added.
Other international students fear the everyday repercussions of not having their passports at hand.
Iranian student Shah* for instance, claimed that he was almost detained by the police for not having his passport with him.
“My college gave me a letter explaining that I’m a student and my passport had been submitted for visa renewal.
“But when I was stopped by the police, they told me that the letter was not valid proof.
“Thankfully, after pleading with them, they were sympathetic to my situation and let me go,” he said.
Shah added that he is still waiting for his passport to be returned.
Meanwhile, tertiary institutions warn that the numbers of incoming international student numbers may sharply drop in the future if these delays go unchecked.
“They promised us it would just take a few weeks for the student visa, but sometimes it can be more than three months.
“If students find our procedures so complicated and slow, they’re just going to go to other countries,” said one college administrator.
Another college official claimed that the sole cause for the delays were due to inefficiencies in EMGS.
“There is too much bureaucracy and red-tape.
“It’s hard to convince students to come and study here when they can’t even get their visas sorted out,” said the official.
According to EMGS chief executive officer Mohd Yazid Abdul Hamid, applications for student visa renewals should be submitted by institutions to EMGS at least six weeks before the current pass expired.
These renewal applications then go through two levels of screening — first by EMGS, followed by another check by the Immigration Department.
EMGS vets students to ensure that they meet the academic requirements set by the Higher Education Department namely, a minimum 80% class attendance; a minimum Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 2.0; and passing a medical examination.
Students can only get their medical checkups done at clinics approved by EMGS.
At this stage, only copies of students’ passports are required along with other supporting documents.
If a student meets all the academic requirements, EMGS will then issue a letter of support for the student’s application to be processed by the Immigration Department.
For institutions based outside Selangor, Putrajaya and the Federal Territories, EMGS sends its letter of support to the institutions, which will then directly submit students’ applications and passports to the respective Immigration Departments.
For institutions based in the Klang Valley however, EMGS will ask for students’ passports once it has processed the academic screening, and EMGS will forward all the documents to the Immigration Department; once the immigration screening is completed, EMGS will then return students’ passports to the institutions.
Mohd Yazid said that EMGS would issue its support letter within seven working days if the correct documentation had been submitted — if not, it would take an average of 21 working days for institutions to respond with all the necessary documents.
He added that most institutions would be informed of a rejected application within two to four days, and they could then appeal against the rejection directly with EMGS.
“Requests for exceptions from the normal process require an official letter from the dean, principal or chief executive officer (of the respective higher education institution),” he said.
In cases where EMGS had chosen to request further explanation from institutions instead of simply rejecting an application, the back-and-forth process could be a long-drawn out one, he said.
“EMGS contacts the institution a minimum of three times over a span of eight working days via email.
“Then there is a follow up call and further e-mails.
“If we do not receive any response or the required additional documents within 90 working days an official letter is sent and after 120 working days, the application is considered closed,” said Mohd Yazid.
He added that the Immigration Department’s processing time meanwhile, varied from just 24 hours to weeks.
“A large number of cases that take weeks, relate to cases where the student failed to get a Single Entry Visa before coming to Malaysia or has made a late or out-of-time application.
“In other cases, the delay has arisen because of backlogs at (the) Immigration (Department),” he said.
Although Mohd Yazid claimed that some delays were caused by errors and lags from institutions themselves, he conceded that the initial delays were due to teething problems at EMGS as well as backlogs at the Immigration Department.
“It is not possible to generalise so widely on the causes for delays.
“EMGS has sent e-mail bulletins to institutions to highlight areas that cause delays and to try and reduce the incidence of error,” he said.
Mohd Yazid said that the EMGS also issued a letter to institutions for each individual passport it received.
“We advise the institutions to provide the students with this letter and retain a copy for themselves.
“This letter may assist students whilst they are without their passport.
“In addition EMGS has made available a contact number for (the authorities) to use to verify a student’s status with EMGS,” he said.
He added that students could also check the status of their applications through EMGS’ online dashboard, to ascertain where their passports might be.
Students could access the dashboard by keying their passport details at www.educationmalaysia.gov.my.
While the Immigration Department has reportedly denied responsibility for causing the delays, and tertiary institutions voice their concerns over losing out enrolment numbers, international students stuck here just want clear answers.
“Many of my friends have the same problem as I do, and we’re just waiting to get our passports back.
“Without any proper answers, all we can do is wait,” said Tham.