As the sun sets and darkness spreads, it’s time for hundreds of Afghans to go and lineup in front of Pakistani visa offices in Afghanistan. In 2016, for the first time Pakistan announced that all Afghans would require a valid visa and passport in order to enter the country. The new travel restriction has not only deteriorated relations between Islamabad and Kabul but also caused serious problems on the ground.
Afghanistan-Pakistan relations go beyond the neighborhood and religion, a special bond between the two countries is Pashtun people inhabited across the Durand line (a controversial border between the two states). Traditionally, all Pashtuns belong to Afghanistan, they have a common language, history, culture, and blood. But when Britain partitioned the sub-continent of India in 1947, most of the Pashtuns remained in the territory that came under the control of Pakistan. Today there are around 32 million Pashtuns in Pakistan and an estimated 15 million in Afghanistan.
Despite political tensions between Kabul and Islamabad, Pashtuns on both sides of the border remained cordial to each other. All Afghans and Pakistanis crossed the border by land causally and without having any travel documents.
But just a few years ago, Pakistan abruptly slammed its door on the Afghans. The country’s rationale for the new travel regulation was that it will prevent cross-border terrorism.
Why should the visa policy be changed?
There are numbers of reasons why Pakistan should rethink on its futile visa policy. First, by restricting the movement of the people, Pakistan cannot stop terrorism because militants do not travel through the mainstream borders, rather they pass over the porous border in the remote and isolated areas. Despite the implementation of the policy, the security situation in both countries remain dangerous. Thus, to prevent terrorism, the problem should be healed in its source.
Second, the “egregious” policy destroys family institution among Pashtuns. Most of the Afghans who cross the border into Pakistan are very poor. Neither they can afford passports, nor they can bribe visa agents. Besides, a big number of Afghan refugees who lived in Pakistan for decades, married to their fellow (Pakistani) Pashtuns. But now because of the new visa regime, these families are ripping apart for they cannot maintain their relations.
“It’s almost three years I have not seen any member of my family, my mother died but I could not go to see her funeral. Neither I could afford a passport, nor I can walk and stand overnight in the line for the visa” a disabled young woman whose family stayed in Pakistan told me in an interview.
Third, due to Pakistan’s travel restrictions, everyday dozens of patients die in Afghanistan. Due to unending conflict, Afghanistan has got one of the world’s worst medical facilities. Everyone tries their best to take their patients to Pakistan- relatively a better place for medical treatment. But due to difficulties in arranging the travel documents more patients are dying. Also, while waiting for visas in the open air, many children and patients die because of harsh weather and congestion.
Fourth, Technically Afghans are exempted from the visa fees, but almost every applicant pay for the visa as incentives. Locale agents linked with Pakistani officials in the visa offices take bribes ranges from US$100 to 400$ per visa. Those who have no money or connection must spend nights in front of the visa offices, wait for a long time and suffer “humiliation” to get their visas.
And last but not least, earlier, every day around 15 thousand passengers would cross Torkham, one of the main borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But now due to the new policy, the number has drastically dropped to only a few thousands. This has affected trade on both local and national level in both countries.
Suddenly putting an end to the centuries-old free movement of the people seems to be a premature decision of Pakistan. Analysts believe that Pakistan fears nationalist movements and foreign influence in its minorities and therefore is not happy to see its Pashtun (and Baloch Papulation) close to Afghanistan. Thus, to consolidate its power, the Pakistani establishment has systematically adopted a policy of “Pakistanization” toward its Pashtuns minority.
But without mutual trust, it is unlikely that Kabul and Islamabad can collaborate to improve the security situation in both countries. For good relations, Pakistan should re-think on its visa policy toward Afghanistan. Both countries should work on visa-free travel or visa-on-arrival facilities. It will not only help the families reunite but also enhance politico-economic relations. Another option can be that Pakistan should upgrade its visa issuing system. Its current services are not only flawed but also extremely insufficient to meet the demand. Issuing long valid visas and expanding its visa offices are other helpful tips to address the issue.
Image credit: Pfc. Daniel M. Rangel. The image is in the public domain in the US. (Via Wikimedia Commons)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a counterterrorism and foreign affairs analyst, and currently a researcher at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (Ottawa). He previously worked at the Observer Research Foundation and Carnegie India. His publications appear in The Diplomat, The Epoch Times, The Hill Times, Toronto Sun, Inside Policy, and elsewhere.