HARARE, ZIMABABWE - Delays in obtaining passports are making some Zimbabweans think of "jumping the border" to look for jobs and a better life. People are still applying for the documents so they can travel legally, but the wait is long and hopes are growing dim.
A line formed Thursday evening near midnight outside Harare’s only passport office. The people covered themselves in blankets or plastic. It was chilly, being winter in this part of the world. Some started a fire to keep the cold at bay.
By 4 a.m. Friday there were about 20 people in line, and they were already worried. Passport office authorities are accepting between five and 15 applicants a day.
The people in line were reluctant to talk at first, but after agreeing on nicknames they opened up, starting with “Joe,” 34.
Joe said he wanted a passport because the economy has really collapsed. He said he wanted to leave the country because he couldn't survive in Zimbabwe. He said he would try to leave even without a passport — that's called "jumping the border" — because there was nothing else he could do in Zimbabwe.
Highly skilled and semiskilled Zimbabweans have been leaving the country for decades, moving to nearby South Africa or Botswana or far away to Britain and U.S. in search of greener pastures.
Now, even more Zimbabweans want to leave, unable to find jobs in the moribund economy.
Last month, officials told parliament that Zimbabwe's chronic shortage of foreign currency was causing delays in processing passports, because there was not enough paper for the travel documents.
Mangena, 43, said he feared his 5-year-old daughter would miss the wedding of her grandmother, who has resettled in the U.S. He said he first applied for his daughter’s passport last August. For three weeks, he said, he has been coming to apply for an emergency passport and even offered to pay more for such processing, to no avail. Now the time for his trip is fast approaching, and he said he was getting anxious, afraid. He has no one to leave his daughter with.
Everything else is ready for the trip, but officials are telling him there’s no paper on which to print passports.
Early this month, Cain Mathema, Zimbabwe's minister of home affairs, said the production of passports would increase because the government had made available more machinery and printing paper. He said printing a few passports a day was going to be thing of the past.
But more than two weeks later, the situation is the same, if not worse.
That cannot come as good news to Joe, Mangena and the other 280,000 Zimbabwe on the passport waiting list. For them, jumping the border is looking like a better option every day.