A vendor pushes his cart across a street in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture: MOELETSI MABE
A vendor pushes his cart across a street in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture: MOELETSI MABE

Harare — Zimbabweans seeking travel documents to leave the country are enduring nightmares as the country has virtually stopped issuing passports to ordinary citizens as a result of foreign currency shortages.

Officials at the passport office in Harare told Business Day that the office is printing only five to 10 passports a day, with the documents reserved for diplomats or the few “special cases” approved by the minister of home affairs.

At the heart of the problem are shortages of foreign currency as the country has no adequate funds to import the ink, paper and other material to print the passports.

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Ordinary citizens seeking to apply for the travel documents are being told that they need to return after 2021, when the office hopes to have cleared its backlog of more than 300,000 applications. 

With its economy experiencing its worst slide in 10 years, many Zimbabweans are keen to leave the country for greener pastures abroad as living conditions have become unbearable.

Last month Zimbabwe’s inflation rate reached almost 100%, the second highest in the world after Venezuela.

Rampant inflation has seen the cost of basic goods skyrocketing beyond the reach of many as commodities have gone up by close to 10 times since late last year, when the economy began to nosedive.

But any plans to leave the country are being met with a brick wall for those desperate to acquire travel documents.

The situation is particularly dire for those seeking to leave the country for medical attention. A good number of patients in Zimbabwe need to be treated abroad, as the country’s health sector has almost collapsed with state hospitals lacking medicines and medical equipment.

A wheelchair-bound patient in the queue at the passport office told Business Day that he now feared death after failing to get travel documents despite having a recommendation letter from his doctor explaining the urgency of his predicament.

 “I need to undergo emergency surgery in India. My passport has expired and I was supposed to be in India two weeks ago but I have failed to travel because I have no passport. I do not know what to do. Maybe they just want me to die here,” he said.

Human rights activists are concerned about the situation, which has degenerated into a humanitarian crisis.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) has described the passport crisis as “one of the major human rights challenges affecting the country”.

“The commission will inquire into and determine the root causes and factors which prevent easy access to identity documents, particularly passports, and to assess the impact of documentation by individuals and groups on the enjoyment of human rights, guaranteed under the constitution, national laws and relevant international and regional treaties and instruments,” the ZHRC said in a statement.

The commission also said it had invited written and oral submissions from stakeholders and the public by not later than July 31 to record grievances against the passport-issuing office.

Many who spoke to Business Day expressed frustration with the registrar-general’s office, which is responsible for issuing passports.

“I have given up,” said Emelda Rukawo, who resides in Namibia and had returned home to renew her passport, which expired in May.

“I feel trapped. What is worse is that I cannot live in Zimbabwe because of the economic situation. My family depends on me to send money back home when I am at my job in Namibia but now I don’t know what to do next.”

Illegal exit

A 21-year-old man who asked not to be named said the only option available to him was to skip the border to SA.

Another woman who said she had camped at the passport office for two weeks pleaded with government to urgently intervene.

“We see Mnangagwa [President Emmerson Mnangagwa] flying out of the country all the time, gobbling millions of dollars but they don’t bother to provide funds for such a dire situation. Our country is a shame.”

Home affairs minister Cain Mathema did not pick up his mobile phone when Business Day phoned to seek a comment.

Mathema recently told state-owned daily newspaper The Herald that the situation would improve.

“Members of the public should not panic. We are working on it. Yes we have been facing some challenges, but I would want to assure passport applicants that we have managed to overcome some of these challenges.”

A senior official at the passport office, however, told Business Day that the situation was worsening. In May “we were printing 30 passports a day and we thought that it could not get worse than that. As we speak, we have reduced the number to just 10 a day. On some days we are forced to do just five and these are only for special cases.”

Many that are in need of the passports often sleep in queues for days or weeks just to submit their applications for the travel documents.

After submitting the documents hundreds of applicants cannot follow up to request urgent passports as they are told that they can only get the documents in 2021.