Atop many Christmas wish lists in economically troubled Zimbabwe is a travel document, and people are flooding the passport office this holiday season ahead of a price hike planned in the New Year.

The desperation at the office in the capital city of Harare is palpable as some people fear the hike could push the cost of obtaining a passport out of reach and economic gloom feeds a surge in migration.

Nolan Mukona said he woke up at dawn to get in line at the passport office but when he arrived at 5 a.m. there were already more than 100 people waiting. Some people had slept outside the office overnight.

“The only thing that can make my Christmas a cheerful one is if I manage to get a passport,” said the 49-year-old father of three. “I have been saving for it for the last three months and I have to make sure I get it before January.”

At $120, passports were already pricey for many in a country where the majority struggle to put food on the table.

The finance minister’s budget proposals for 2024 said passport fees would rise to $200 in January, sparking an outcry. The hike was then reduced to $150.

Several million Zimbabweans are estimated to have left the southern African country over the past two decades when its economy began collapsing.

The migration has taken renewed vigor in recent years as hopes of a better life following the 2017 ouster of longtime president Robert Mugabe fade. The late president was accused of running down the country.

Many people, including professionals such as schoolteachers, are taking short nursing courses and seeking passports to leave for the United Kingdom to take up health care work.

According to figures released by the U.K.’s immigration department in November, 21,130 Zimbabweans were issued visas to work in the health and care sector from September last year to September this year, up from 7,846 the previous year.

Only India and Nigeria, countries with significantly larger populations than Zimbabwe, have more people issued such work visas.

Many more Zimbabweans choose to settle in neighbouring South Africa.

According to South Africa’s statistics agency, just over 1 million Zimbabweans are living in that country, up from more than 600,000 during its last census in 2011, although some believe the figure could be much higher as many cross the porous border illegally.

The economic desperation has coupled with the expected increase in the price of travel documents to create an end-of-year rush.

The passport office has increased working hours to operate at night to cater to the growing numbers. Enterprising touts sell spots for $5 for those who want to skip the line.

“It’s my gateway to a better life,” said Mukona of the passport he hopes to get.

He plans to leave his work as an English teacher at a private college to migrate to the United Kingdom as a carer. Once there, he hopes to have his family follow, a move that may be endangered by recent proposals by U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to change migration visa rules to limit the ability of migrant workers to bring their families to the U.K.

Harare-based economist Prosper Chitambara said a lack of formal jobs and low prospects of economic recovery have turned the passport from a mere travel document into a life-changing document for many.

“The challenging economic situation is not showing signs of remission so this is an incentive for Zimbabweans to migrate,” said Chitambara. “The passport is now more than just a travel document. Being in possession of a passport means changed economic fortunes because it’s a major step towards leaving.”

The economist predicted a tougher New Year for Zimbabweans, citing a raft of new or higher taxes proposed by the finance minister.

Zimbabwe’s government says the migration comes at a huge cost to the country because of a brain drain, particularly in the health sector. It has pleaded to the World Health Organization to intervene and stop richer countries from recruiting Zimbabwean nurses, doctors and other health professionals.

Vice President Constantino Chiwenga earlier this year described the recruitment as “a crime against humanity” and proposed a law to stop health professionals from migrating.

Life has not always turned out rosy for those leaving.

The British press has reported the abuse of people settling in the United Kingdom as care workers, with some ending up living on the streets or barely earning enough to survive.

A report by Unseen, a U.K charity, in October said “the care sector is susceptible to worker exploitation and modern slavery. Many people providing their labor in the sector receive low pay and the work is considered low-skilled.”

The group, which campaigns against modern slavery and exploitation, said Zimbabweans were among the top nationalities to be victimized in the care sector.

Despite such reports, many in Zimbabwe are not deterred.

“I will deal with those issues when I get there. Right now my priority is getting hold of a passport and leaving. Anything is better than being in Zimbabwe right now,” said Mukona.