By Ilhamuddin Afghan
As conflict and instability continue to grip Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans are fleeing the country and seeking refuge in neighboring countries like Pakistan. One of the most popular routes for Afghan migration and trade is the Torkham crossing, located in eastern Afghanistan and bordering Pakistan. However, for many years, the Torkham crossing point has been a challenging route for Afghans, with little to no facilities for the elderly or those with illnesses to rest. The path along the border is narrow and fenced, and the crowds can be so large that they sometimes crush the elderly.
Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the de facto administration has failed to consistently issue passports to fleeing Afghans. Pakistani border guards, the embassy, and consulates demanded money from Afghans who wanted to enter the border for family visits or medical tourism over and above valid identification or a visa. This has made it even more challenging for Afghans to leave their country and seek refuge in Pakistan.
Under the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans received Pakistani visas daily. The visas were issued by the Pakistani embassy in Kabul and its consulates in the provinces of eastern Nangarhar and southern Kandahar. However, the visa procedures have become even more challenging and demanding under the Taliban’s rule. A sticker-based visa application has transitioned online, and if the applicant is fortunate, it could take up to three months to obtain a Pakistani visa. To secure a visa, applicants must also have an invitation letter from Pakistan.
Recently a visa scandal in Pakistan Embassy in Sweden came to light wherein Embassy officials were hand-in glove with a syndicate and issued more than 1600 visas to Afghan nationals after receiving money from the applicants. Fake documents were created to grant these visas.
In Afghanistan also Pakistani visas can be purchased on the black market for hundreds of US dollars in addition to the fixed fee. This has led to the exploitation of vulnerable Afghans who are already struggling to make ends meet. Muhammad Halim, a visa applicant, told the author that he paid $4000 through middlemen to get visas for eight members of his family. Additionally, he claimed that applicants would not be able to obtain a visa if they lacked the necessary funds and paperwork. Nangarhar resident Basharatullah claimed to have submitted an online visa application, and provided the required papers, but his application was turned down.
Approximately three million Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan for more than forty years. Due to pressure from Pakistan, many were forced to return to their home country. However, in Afghanistan, Afghans feel forced to leave their country as a result of rising unemployment, extreme poverty, human rights violations, the ban on women’s education, and Taliban retribution killings. As a result, the demand for Pakistani visas has grown during the past 18 months.
There are various means of border crossing for migrants and travelers. The Taliban’s Ministry of Public Health provides a document called the “reference sheet” for patients. The letter helps Afghans who seek medical attention to applying for a medical visa to travel to Pakistan for medical tourism. Getting a reference sheet is as difficult as getting a Pakistani visa, even in the case of a genuine illness. Applicants are also forced to pay bribes to attain a medical visa. The applicants need additional money to pay for a visa in the black market and to pay Pakistani police when they cross the Torkham border.
A medical visa applicant in Jalalabad, Fazal Rahman said that he managed to “buy” a referral sheet but did not have enough money to bribe Pakistani police for him and his ill wife to cross the border. Rahman’s wife has cancer, and the couple aimed to travel to Peshawar for treatment, but the police arrested them and returned them back to Afghanistan because he did not have additional money to pay the police.
Pakistan and Afghanistan share several border crossings, including Torkham, Spin Bold near Kandahar, and the Ghulam Khan crossing point in the province of Khost. These crossings serve as commercial and transit routes for products moving to and from Pakistan’s port city of Karachi. The Spin Boldak crossing is particularly significant, acting as a hub for goods moving between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Ghulam Khan border crossing provides Pakistan with the fastest route to Afghanistan, the Central Asian States, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPEC). However, it is worth noting that while Tazkiras, or Afghan IDs, are accepted at the Spin Boldak and Ghulam Khan crossings, they are not accepted at Torkham.
On both sides of the Durand Line, the Shinwar, Momand, and Afridi tribes have requested Pakistani and Afghan officials to allow them to travel with their Tazkaras through Torkham. However, the authorities on both sides have denied this request. The Pakistani government has also refused these tribes’ requests for visas. This has caused significant frustration among these tribes, who feel that they are being discriminated against and prevented from visiting their families across the border.
The Durand Line Agreement, signed between the British Raj and Afghan King Amir Abdul Rahman Khan in 1893, has long divided Pashtun families across two territories. Pashtuns consider the Durand Line to be a fictitious line and do not recognize it as an official border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a result, no government in Afghanistan has recognized it as such either. This has led to frequent clashes between Pakistani and Afghan forces along the Durand Line, causing casualties on both sides. Most recently, on 19 February 2023, there were reports of fighting between Afghan and Pakistani forces, resulting in casualties on both sides. According to the Taliban authorities, the conflict arose because of Pakistan’s mistreatment of Afghan patients.
The recent fighting along the Durand Line, coupled with the closure of the Torkham border by the Taliban, has prompted a high-ranking delegation from Pakistan to travel to Kabul on 22 February 2023. The delegation, led by Pakistan’s Defence Minister and military intelligence chief, met with Taliban leaders to discuss security issues. One of the key issues discussed was the rise in attacks by the Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) inside Pakistani cities, which Pakistan has accused the Taliban of harboring in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban have denied these accusations.
The border crossings between Pakistan and Afghanistan play a significant role in commercial and transit trade between the two countries. However, the issue of Tazkiras and visas for border tribes remains a contentious one, causing frustration among those affected. Moreover, the Durand Line continues to be a source of conflict between Pakistani and Afghan forces, with recent skirmishes causing casualties on both sides. The meeting between the Pakistani delegation and the Taliban leaders in Kabul highlights the ongoing security concerns between the two countries and the element of mistrust running as an undercurrent in the ties.
Note:The contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the articles.