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Af-Pak 2014: Crossing the line

Hayyat Kakar and Nang Durrani
Despite the Pakistan government's efforts to control migration, thousands of Afghans illegally cross the border each year. While some simply strive to avoid police harassment, others pay human traffickers to take…
28.11.2014  |  Quetta/Kandahar

On his frequent trips to Quetta and other Pakistani cities where he buys medicine, Karimullah Mohsen, a pharmacy owner is from the Jaghori district of Ghazni province, says he is regularly hassled by border police on account of his ethnic origin. “I am Hazara. I have my passport and visa to legally enter Pakistan, but since I don’t speak Pashto as well as other people, it’s really easy for police to single me out among the other travelers,” he says.

Each day, thousands of Afghans cross the border into Pakistan to seek medical care, visit relatives and buy products from local markets. Many travellers avoid legal checkpoints to avoid extortion by border police. (Cartoon: Uzra Shamal)

“There are so many people from Kandahar province that cross into Pakistan without a visa or passport. If they get caught, they can bribe the police with approximately 200 Pakistani Rupees. But in my case, despite having the proper travel documents, they will not let me walk away without paying 2000 Rupees in cash.”

Crossing the border into Pakistan the legal way is a source of consternation for many Afghans. They complain of harsh and unfair treatment at the hands of Pakistani police who stop and search cars at checkpoints and often demand bribes for letting Afghans into the country. To avoid such problems, most Afghans use illicit channels to travel back and forth.

The border crossing in the Spin Buldak district of Kandahar province is notorious among Afghans for abusive practices by Pakistani police. Lately, travelers from other provinces who do not speak the local dialect of Pashto have faced more difficulties than locals. While Kandaharis have become well-versed at getting past Pakistani police and prepare themselves in advance for such encounters, travelers from other provinces are often caught off-guard.

Sometimes, Mohsen travels through illegal crossing points to avoid the high charges. Despite the Pakistan government’s efforts to curb such practices, drivers on the both sides of the border taxi travelers across while avoiding police checkpoints. According to passengers, dozens of vehicles illegally travel from Afghanistan to Pakistan daily. Travelers say the drivers’ fees are more reasonable that the bribes demanded by the police. The taxi drivers, who usually use unpaved roads that are not under the control of Pakistani police, say they must share their profits with Pakistani officials at the end of each workday.

Samiullah, 27, travels to Pakistan up to three times each month to buy spare car parts for his shop in Kandahar. “If we don’t pay the Pakistani police the amount they ask, they either fine us or simply put us in jail as Taliban suspects,” he says. “The amount we have to pay in bribes at the legal crossings outweighs the profits of the business trip. Therefore, we are obliged to go through unpaved, dangerous and illegal roads where we can avoid these annoying police forces.”

Trucks wait to cross into Afghanistan at Chaman border crossing. Would-be emigrants often risk their lives in poorly ventilated spaces to get trafficked across Pakistan to Iran. (Photo: Wisal Yousafzai)

Aside from the high chances of ambush and robbery, travelers run the risk of getting caught by Pakistani police patrols. Hashmatullah Barakzai owns a clothing shop in Kandahar city and travels to Pakistan regularly to import textiles. Some of his friends, he said, were recently robbed while travelling in the border areas in Pakistan. They lost everything they had, he said.

“No Afghan is immune to this kind of treatment," Barakzai says. "[Police] ask for money and take bribes from us for no reason. If we don’t accept their demands, we find ourselves in jail.”

Akhtar Muneer, the Pakistan Embassy’s spokesman in Kabul, questioned the validity of these complaints, adding there is no report to show that Afghans face police harassment at the border. Every day, Pakistani officials issue thousands of visas to Afghans in consulates around the country. There might be some problems, he admitted, but it’s not Pakistani government policy to harass Afghan travelers.

“It’s an absolute requirement that Afghans have a passport and a valid visa to enter Pakistan,” he says. “Those who travel through illegal ways face the legal reactions of our police forces, but to be clear, harassment of the Afghan people is not in our policy.” Muneer also called on the Afghan government to help Pakistan officials prevent Afghan travelers from illegally crossing into Pakistan.

Many Afghans, especially those who say they experienced harsh treatment at the hands of Pakistani police, blame their government for failing to take serious steps to resolve this problem. Kandahar University student Rahmatullah, 23, says that it is mainly the responsibility of the Afghan embassy in Islamabad to address the issue. “The embassy and other consulates around Pakistan do nothing to help their fellow citizens,” he says. “It’s absolutely their responsibility to make sure their people in Pakistan don’t experience such difficulties.”

Senior officials at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claim that they have addressed this issue with their counterparts in Islamabad. “Our embassy and other diplomatic entities all over Pakistan are well aware of our fellow citizens’ experiences during their visits to Pakistan," said Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ahmad Shekep Mustaghni. "On many occasions, we have brought this to the attention of senior officials in Pakistan. But there are also some problems with our Afghans, especially those who travel to Pakistan without visas."

Road to London

For many undocumented Afghans fleeing war and economic strife, the clandestine trip across the Durand Line is only the beginning of a perilous journey to Europe. Run by cartels involving politicians, law enforcement as well as tribal leaders, human trafficking has grown into a lucrative business in Pakistan.

The increase of human trafficking practices in the aftermath of War on Terror has garnered government attention as well as funds to prevent them. In 2003, Pakistani authorities established a special court and appointed an immigration judge in Quetta to deal with the rise of people smuggling-related cases in Baluchistan province.

Pakistan shares a very long and porous border with Afghanistan that facilitates human trafficking across the two countries and sets illegal migrants on a treacherous journey that ends in Europe, says Akhunzada Abdul Ghani, a former Federal Investigation Agency official.

Disguising their clients in local traditional clothing and shifting them from one checkpoint to the next, agents dodge law enforcement officials deployed throughout Baluchistan province. Those who are caught face trial at special session courts set up to deal with trafficking issues.  If found guilty, would-be emigrants are fined 500-5,000 Pakistani Rupees and imprisoned for 2-6 months under Pakistani law.

Those who escape detection are brought to Quetta, where they are accommodated in countryside inns and rented houses. From there, they are moved to Taftan crossing on the Iranian border, nicknamed the “road to London” due to its high rate of people smuggling.

The risk of failure is high. While thousands of individual attempt illegal immigration each month, most are apprehended and deported back to their country of origin. At times, would-be emigrants become human trafficking agents themselves because their unsuccessful attempts give them inside knowledge of existing channels.

After failed attempts at emigration, Spin Baldak resident Shereen Khan now works as a human trafficking agent in Baluchistan. He describes trafficking as very long process involving many groups. Traffickers charge fixed prices and require clients to pay a part of the sum at the initial stage while the remainder is paid at the end of the journey. Travelers are smuggled in special containers, oil tankers and taxis, facing food and water shortage. At times, clients travel in highly congested spaces devoid of ventilation. In one 2009 incident, Baluchistan police recovered the bodies of 50 Afghans crammed in a shipping container bound for Iran.

The cross-border movement of undocumented individuals also heightens the risk of spreading disease. Pakistan was declared a “red zone” for polio infections last year, prompting World Health Organization (WHO) vaccination campaigns in Quetta and in Pashtun-dominant areas near the Afghan border. Cases were reported among Afghan refugees living in camps in Baluchistan as well as families seeking medical treatment in Quetta, says WHO doctor Farooq Rind.

For the thousands who brave the journey to Taftan and other crossing points each year, the associated physical risks are worth a chance to escape the crushing poverty and violence they face at home, says Hafiz Rehmat of the Society for Empowering Human Resource (SEHER), an organization that rehabilitates trafficked individuals. SEHER has provided material aid and repatriation services to 1,400 trafficked individuals, and collaborates on human trafficking issues with the FIA, police and lawyers.

“When they get arrested, trafficked individuals are kept in very poor conditions, without food and medical care. It’s a complete violation of their human rights,” Rehmat says. “Everyone has the right to live in peace and economic security, but many families in the area are deprived of these rights and forced to leave their homelands.”