The holiday season in Zimbabwe is marked by a rush to obtain passports in order to leave the country, fueled by economic struggles and rising prices.
Many people in Zimbabwe who are struggling financially have put obtaining a travel document at the top of their Christmas wish list. As a result, the passport office is experiencing a surge of visitors during this holiday season, as they try to beat the price increase scheduled for the upcoming year.
The sense of urgency in the workplace in the main city of Harare is evident as there is concern that the increase may make it unaffordable to obtain a passport, and the bleak economic outlook is contributing to a surge in people leaving the country.
Nolan Mukona shared that he rose at sunrise in order to queue at the passport office, but upon arrival at 5 a.m., there were already over 100 individuals ahead of him. Several individuals had even spent the night outside the office.
The 49-year-old father of three stated that his Christmas would only be joyful if he could obtain a passport. He has been setting aside money for the past three months and is determined to secure it before January.
Passport costs have been a burden for citizens in a country where most struggle to afford basic necessities. The finance minister’s 2024 budget plans initially suggested increasing passport fees to $200 in January, leading to backlash. However, the proposed increase was later lowered to $150.
Over the last 20 years, a significant number of Zimbabweans have departed their home country in response to its declining economy. This trend has become even more prevalent in recent years due to diminishing prospects for a brighter future after the removal of longtime leader Robert Mugabe in 2017. Mugabe, who passed away, was blamed for the country’s deterioration.
Numerous individuals, including educators like schoolteachers, are enrolling in brief nursing programs and applying for passports in order to relocate to the United Kingdom for employment opportunities in the healthcare industry.
In November, the U.K.’s immigration department reported that 21,130 Zimbabweans received work visas in the health and care industry from September of last year to September of this year. This is a significant increase from the 7,846 issued the year before.
Only India and Nigeria, countries with significantly larger populations than Zimbabwe, have more people issued such work visas.
A larger number of Zimbabweans opt to make homes in the nearby country of South Africa.
The statistics agency of South Africa reports that there are currently more than 1 million Zimbabweans residing in the country. This is a significant increase from the 600,000 recorded during the last census in 2011. However, it is believed that the actual number may be higher as many enter the country illegally through the porous border.
The combination of financial desperation and anticipated rise in travel document costs has resulted in a rush at the end of the year.
The passport office now has extended hours and operates at night to accommodate the increasing demand. Opportunistic individuals are selling spots for $5 to those who wish to avoid waiting in line.
Mukona expressed that obtaining a passport would be his ticket to a better life.
He intends to resign from his position as an English teacher at a private college and move to the United Kingdom as a caregiver. He plans for his family to join him, but this may be difficult due to potential changes in migration visa regulations proposed by U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that could restrict the ability of migrant workers to bring their families to the U.K.
Economist Prosper Chitambara, who is based in Harare, stated that due to the scarcity of formal employment and limited chances of economic improvement, the passport has transformed from a simple travel document to a crucial document that can greatly impact one’s life.
“The current difficult economic circumstances continue to persist, which is prompting Zimbabweans to consider migrating,” stated Chitambara. “The passport holds more significance than just a means of travel. Owning a passport signifies improved economic prospects as it is a crucial step towards emigrating.”
The economy expert forecasted a difficult start to the year for citizens of Zimbabwe, noting the introduction of several new or increased taxes suggested by the finance minister.
The Zimbabwean government claims that the movement of people out of the country has a significant impact due to a loss of skilled workers, especially in the healthcare field. They have requested assistance from the World Health Organization in preventing wealthier nations from hiring Zimbabwean nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers.
Earlier this year, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga referred to the recruitment as “a crime against humanity” and put forth a law to prevent health professionals from migrating.
The journey of life has not always been easy for those who have departed.
The British media has documented instances of mistreatment towards individuals who have migrated to the United Kingdom to work as caregivers. Some of these individuals have even resorted to living on the streets or struggling to make ends meet.
According to a report released by the U.K charity Unseen in October, the care industry is at risk for worker abuse and human trafficking. Numerous individuals employed in this sector receive inadequate wages and their work is often undervalued as being low-skilled.
The organization, which advocates against modern forms of slavery and exploitation, reported that Zimbabweans are one of the most targeted nationalities in the healthcare industry.
Despite these reports, there are still many people in Zimbabwe who are not discouraged.
Mukona stated that upon arrival, they will address the problems at hand. Currently, their main focus is obtaining a passport and departing. They believe that any situation is preferable to remaining in Zimbabwe at this time.