Passports are no longer available in Zimbabwe. The office of the Registrar-General has stopped producing them because the cost of importing the special paper required has become unaffordable.

The country's economic meltdown in recent years has seen more than 3 million of its about 12 million people seeking employment opportunities in South Africa, Botswana, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Canada.

The demand for passports - the latest item to become unavailable - already has a four-year backlog, driven by inflation rates hovering at around 1,200 percent a year - the highest in the world - unemployment rates above 70 percent and everyday shortages of food, fuel, clean water and electricity.

Although millions of Zimbabweans are believed to have left the country illegally, mostly to neighbouring southern African states, the unavailability of passports will mainly affect students who have secured places at foreign universities, people seeking formal employment outside Zimbabwe and cross-border traders.

Earlier this week, Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede sent a circular to all passport offices, ordering them to suspend operations. "We were told to immediately stop giving out passport forms, and to chase away all people who were hoping to apply or collect passports," said one officer.

Officials at the Registrar-General's Office in the capital, Harare, told IRIN that they were instructed to issue only Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs), which are valid for six months. "Any foreign-based Zimbabweans using ETDs can always renew them at the nearest Zimbabwean Embassy if the documents expire," the official told IRIN.

Independent analysts estimate that Zimbabwe's industrial sector has contracted by a third since 2000, while the farming sector, previously one of the country's main foreign currency earners, has shrunk by 65 percent during the same period, forcing tens of thousands of unemployed women to start cross-border trading businesses. The traders buy goods in neighbouring countries and resell them in Zimbabwe, where they have either become too expensive or are unavailable.

Mary Moyo, a cross-border trader, arrived at the Harare passport office on Wednesday to renew her passport. "I lost my job more than 10 years ago and I support my children and my grandchildren through cross-border trading - this will make me spend more time applying for ETDs," she told IRIN.

Another official at the registrar's office said passports could be issued in special circumstances. "We are only processing passport forms of special cases of people who have come through from the Registrar-General himself."

On Tuesday, the Registrar-General told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Defence and Home Affairs that his office did not have adequate funding. "In the 2006 budget, we were given 64 percent of what we had requested. At the moment we don't even have a cent in our account. In the 2007 budget, we were given 28 percent of what we had requested. The net effect is that we will not be able to pull through up to May 2007. We might be forced to ground all our operations."

Marriage certificates could become the next scarce commodity. According to local media reports, the Bulawayo magistrate's courts have run out of marriage certificates and are desperately seeking more.

Matabeleland regional magistrate John Masimba told the local media, "We are making all efforts to ensure that everything is in place, so that couples intending to tie the knot are not inconvenienced. We have been phoning around the provinces to see if they can come to our rescue with the documents."

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