Harare - Zimbabwe's passport-issuing service has ground to a halt, officials said Monday, leaving many citizens trapped in the country as its economic crisis worsens.
Applicants for new or renewed passports face an indefinite wait as the government does not have the foreign currency to pay for special imported paper, ink and other raw materials.
Officials at the Registrar General Office said that even if citizens want to pay for an urgent application for a passport, they face a minimum wait of 18 months before they can even submit their papers.
"Last month, the urgent applicants were being told to come back at the end of 2020," said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
She added that non-urgent applicants were told that no date was available for when they can apply.
Millions of Zimbabweans have fled abroad in the last 20 years seeking work as hyperinflation wiped out savings and the formal employment sector collapsed.
Many others are now seeking to leave as conditions worsen under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had promised an economic revival after he succeeding long-ruling Robert Mugabe in 2017.
Official inflation is at nearly 100 percent -- the highest since hyperinflation forced the government to abandon the Zimbabwe dollar in 2009 -- while supplies of essentials such as bread, medicine and petrol regularly run short.
Isheanesu Mpofu, a 23-year-old unemployed university graduate, applied for a passport last November but is still waiting.
"I went back early June to check on it, and was told to check again in August," Mpofu said, adding he wanted to visit his family abroad.
"Besides, it is my right to have a passport so I can travel whenever I want to," he said.
Mnangagwa addressed the problem last month, saying a dispute with the printers over unpaid bills meant that a state-owned company would take over the job.
"They said they will not print any more passports because of legacy debts," he said, claiming the money had now been paid.
A passport office official said that only ten passports were being printed each day despite a reported backlog of 280,000.
"We have the capacity to clear the backlog in a very short time but all the machinery is lying idle right now," she said.
Registrar General Clement Masango said that he had no comment to add to the president's remarks.