Managing border flows during COVID-19: Vanuatu Customs’ experienceBy Vanuatu Customs
Vanuatu is one of the few countries in the world to have almost evaded the COVID-19 pandemic. This is mainly due to the implementation of stringent border control measures in the archipelago. This article examines how the Vanuatu Department of Customs and Inland Revenue (DCIR) adapted its procedures to enable the flow of cargo and travellers, while avoiding the spread of the virus.
On 26 March 2020, the President of Vanuatu declared a State of Emergency in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. All ports of entry were closed to international incoming passengers. Only import and export of cargo was permitted under controlled procedures. All activities in the island of Efate, where the capital Port Vila is located, were shut down for 14 days as part of the containment measures. Even inter-island travel was prohibited to contain the virus within Efate.
The National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) immediately established a COVID-19 Advisory Taskforce (C19AT) comprising border agencies. The Department of Customs and Inland Revenue contributed to C19AT by developing procedures for both cargo and passenger processing of inbound and outbound flights which were shortly to restart.
It was essential to ensure minimum physical interaction during cargo offloading and processing. At the airport, terminal workers were provided with full personal protective equipment (PPE) and were asked to have no physical interaction with the aircraft crew. The goods after unloading were left overnight in the terminal warehouse before being processed the next day. A similar modus operandi was adopted at sea ports, with the vessel crew not allowed to leave the ship, but assisted with offloading from the vessel. Stevedores had no physical interaction with the vessel crew, although stevedore crane operators were allowed to board the ship to assist with operating the ship’s crane if required, with strict physical distancing. The goods were processed from the ship to storage immediately. All frontline workers involved in offloading operations were regularly tested for COVID-19.
When Cyclone Harold hit Vanuatu in early April 2020, a quick response had to be deployed under strict COVID-19 restrictions. The category five cyclone devastated the northern part of Vanuatu, along with the second largest town and major export port of Luganville. The cyclone was the largest to hit the country since Cyclone Pam in 2015, and left 18,000 people without water and electricity.
Flights carrying relief supplies had to land at Port Vila while Pekoa Airport in the northern town of Luganville was being cleared. Cargo was then transported by ship. Flights and ships were later allowed into Luganville with relief supplies but the cargo was cleared in Port Vila before arriving in Luganville. All relief shipments were required to obtain NDMO approval prior to arrival.
Moving the clearance process from one Customs office to the other was easily done given that, in 2017, DCIR had upgraded its automated clearance system to ASYCUDA World, which allows goods entering one port to be cleared at any office or location.
Compared to cargo clearance, passenger processing of inbound flights posed a challenge due to the health risks involved. Together with other border agencies and the Department of Health, from March to May 2020, C19AT developed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to prepare for repatriation flights which were to commence in June 2020.
Customs airport officers, as well as 20 individuals hired on a contract basis, were trained to implement the new procedures. The number of Customs frontline staff at the airport increased from around 30 to 50 individuals.
Changes were made to the interior of the terminal to cater for the new health requirements. This included installing glass walls to separate passengers from the officers. Cameras were also set up inside the terminal to enable Customs supervisors and health inspectors to monitor activities from a safe location.
Passengers were advised before departure to have a carry-on bag with enough clothes for up to three days as their check-in luggage was to follow a new process upon arrival: instead of being moved to conveyor belts, it was to be stored until passengers were released from quarantine after 14 days. The luggage was to be checked once collected by the passengers but the latter were given the option of providing consent on their arrival cards for officers to check their luggage during the time it was stored, without them being present. If this option was selected, the luggage was to be checked the day following their arrival. If any issue was detected, a report was to be produced so that any border officer in charge of handing over the luggage would know that its owner had to visit the Customs office before collecting it.
In Vanuatu, Customs officers are responsible for processing passengers at the primary and secondary (baggage haul) lines. Passports were collected and placed in a secure location for 24 hours before being checked. They were returned to their owners the next day at their quarantine location.
The officers in charge of passenger processing operated in three teams (A, B, C) of eight. The teams worked in a weekly rotation: when team A was processing passengers, Team B would check the passports and check-in luggage, and Team C would be in quarantine. At the end of their quarantine (in other words, before starting to process passengers again), all officers of a team would be tested for COVID-19. All were vaccinated and wore PPE.
The other border agencies adopted a similar arrangement. If an outbreak occurred in one of the teams, the whole team was to go into isolation for 14 days and be replaced by another team.
The cost related to the quarantine was a major concern as officers were to stay in hotels. In 2021, DCIR acquired a government-owned property near the airport in Port Vila and converted it to a quarantine isolation centre for frontline officers.
For two years while the pandemic spread across the globe, Vanuatu had very few positive cases involving passengers and officers, and all were successfully contained and did not lead to community outbreak. This proved the system worked and allowed for safe travelling into and out of the country.
In March 2022, a breach of quarantine by a passenger at a quarantine facility led to a community outbreak. However, protocols for managing cargo and passengers remained the same, with one change: the payment process became electronic. Cash payments were still accepted at two Customs offices located at Port Vila as an alternative option under strict health protocols.
As in many administrations, the COVID-19 crisis has pushed DCIR towards more digitalization. The Administration is now working on enhancing its risk analysis by reassessing its selectivity criteria. This will enable it to reduce the number of physical controls, as well as bottlenecks at ports of entry. This will in turn lower transport costs, which is needed even more given the price of fuel.
DCIR is also adding a module to ASYCUDA: the Automated System for Relief Emergency Consignments (ASYREC). As its name suggests, it will automate the prioritization and rapid processing of relief consignments in humanitarian emergencies. The module is actively used in four countries worldwide and Vanuatu will be the first Pacific Island country to implement it. Funded by the Australian Government, the project is scheduled to be completed by April 2023.