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13 kg mobile kit on Vancouver beach (Canada) (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
‘We must help these Belgians’
These were the words of the then Director-General of Consular Affairs. When biometric passports with fingerprints were launched, as a European obligation, many consular staff became aware of the difficulty that this new procedure would represent for many Belgians living abroad. Can you imagine having to travel across Canada, Brazil or even an ocean with your family, just to apply for a passport? As FPS Foreign Affairs, we had to act and offer alternative solutions.
And the teams got to work: carrying out a thorough analysis of the European directives and regulations to find out exactly who can apply and if this competence can be delegated; specifying where (does it have to be at the Consulate?) and when (at the time of application?) the documents must be requested... This led to drafts of pre-registration, applications for a passport at another post, and solutions in the event of the loss or theft of a precious passport. The mobile kit would of course make life easier for everyone.
In addition to a laptop, the old mobile kit also contains a fingerprint scanner, a camera on a tripod and a printer (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
Fitting everything into a box
Once the regulatory and technical aspects had been resolved, all that was left to do was fit all the equipment into a mobile solution. But it was not that easy to fit in a laptop, a fingerprint reader, a pad that records the signature, a camera on a stand - the webcams of the time did not provide enough quality for regulatory photos - and a printer. Our colleague Alexandre, who designed the first mobile kits, had to be very ingenious to combine everything. As a result, the first mobile kits looked like a large 13 kg suitcase.
These rather cumbersome first-generation mobile kits have travelled around the world for seven to eight years, bringing satisfaction to everyone, despite the technical hazards that sometimes proved nerve-racking.
Technical support and a great deal of sangfroid
We all know that computers are very useful, except when they don't work. The fear of bugs haunted consuls on missions! Each report included pre-departure tests, arrival tests, and even calls for help to our IT team in Brussels, which was usually miraculous in ensuring the success of the many appointments. Sometimes more than 40 per day!
But remote help was sometimes impossible and we had to remain stoic, like our consul Johan: ‘I remember one of my missions in Vancouver, a five-hour flight from Toronto. I was going to meet around 200 Belgians over the course of two days. Some came from a long way away, from small towns a few hundred kilometres from Vancouver, towards Alaska. On Saturday at around 11 a.m., there was a big problem, as the battery was no longer working. The system was dead. I tried in vain to restart my kit in front of several increasingly nervous and impatient Belgians. Our honorary consul jumped in her car to try and find a new battery in the shops. When she returned, two hours later, I had been able to turn the laptop back on after removing the battery and rubbing it several times. It was a big scare, but fortunately there were no repercussions.’
The modern mobile kit: a tablet will do (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
A grateful public
Generally speaking, "mobile kit missions" are welcomed with great enthusiasm by Belgians, who are delighted with this local service. There is often an excellent atmosphere during this direct contact with the embassy, and our compatriots take this opportunity to meet and talk about their personal experiences.
This does not prevent us from having to deal with a bit more demanding clients from time to time, as our consul Anne recalls, ‘I remember an elderly gentleman who complained about having to travel to Munich for his passport even though he lived about 20 km away. While chatting to him to lighten the mood, we learned that his passport was actually for a trip ... to Australia!’
Ten years after its launch, the mobile kit service has been modernised, and the 13 kg case is now a simple tablet. The mobile kit definitely still has plenty of good days ahead of it!