THE Registrar General’s (RG) department has suspended issuing emergency passports, as ongoing foreign currency shortages continue to affect key public and commercial operations.
Zimbabwe is grappling with a worsening foreign currency crisis attributed to a wide current account gap. The central bank told this newspaper last week that the backlog of international payments had widened from $185 million in May to $570 million currently. The shortage of forex has affected key sectors of the economy, including mines and manufacturers, who are struggling to pay for raw materials and equipment imports.
The RG’s department requires special imported paper to produce travel documents, coveted by a significant number of Zimbabweans, who are among the most itinerant on the continent. The department generates an average $27 million annually from user fees, including passports. Zimbabwe has an estimated three million citizens living in South Africa, mostly forced out of the country by a political and economic crisis blamed on President Robert Mugabe’s policies.
Thousands of Zimbabweans based in South Africa are seeking to renew their travel documents, and many are opting for emergency passports to meet a deadline imposed by that country’s immigration officials to apply for the extension of residence and work permits, according to officials from the Passport Office.
Last week, South Africa’s Home Affairs Department announced that Zimbabweans in that country should apply for new exemption permits between September 15 and November 30, 2017. The new permits will be valid until December 31, 2021. Close to 200 000 Zimbabweans hold the special permit, first issued in 2009 to regularise the status of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who had poured into South Africa, fleeing a political and economic crisis which peaked in 2008.
Officials at the RG’s office confirmed the suspension of emergency passports, citing foreign currency shortages for the importation of the special paper. Sources said the RG’s office had stopped issuing passports a fortnight ago. They said even plastic identity documents had been affected by the shortage of foreign currency, which was hampering the import of raw material. However, the RG’s office was still issuing application forms and receiving applications for passports, they said.
An official told The Financial Gazette yesterday: “At the moment, we have suspended issuance of passports because we don’t have the paper. We are not sure when we will get the special paper because of shortages of foreign currency. This means it’s difficult for us to import the paper.” Another official said: “Yes, we have suspended issuing emergency passports because we have run out of the special paper which is imported. We were told there is no foreign currency to import the paper but we are processing the normal passports, which take about three or more months.”
Efforts to get a comment from Registrar General, Tobaiwa Mudede, and his deputy, Ben Mpala, were fruitless. They were said to be in meetings. Mudede also did not respond to a written request for comment. The passport office had recently improved its services after years of alleged inefficiency that bred graft. A normal passport, which costs $53, takes a minimum of three months to process, while an emergency passport, which costs about $253, takes about three days. The passports crisis is only the latest in a series of problems emerging out of worsening foreign currency shortages in the country, which could disrupt the normal functioning of the economy.