The Pashtun Sit-In Challenging Pakistan’s Immigration Policy
Until last month, Mohammad Alam Shinwari, 49, rode 15 kilometers from his home in Spin Boldak, a border town in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, to run his Auto spare parts and tire business in Chaman city of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Crossing the porous Bab Dosti–Friendship Gate–was simple: Shinwari kept both Pakistani and Afghan national identity cards in his pocket in case he was stopped at the border.
“I made a decent living from my business, earning per day over 20,000 Pakistani rupees (less than $75),” he told KabulNow. “I have family, relatives, and friends on both sides of the border, intricately tied by language, social and tribal relationships. Crossing the border was never an issue.”
Mohammad Alam is one of the thousands of locals, traders, civil society activists, and politicians who have staged a sit-in at the Chaman border since October 21. They are demanding the Pakistani government to halt its decision to require passports for border crossing from Afghanistan. The decision, announced on October 3, came into force this November as part of the mass forced expulsion scheme to deport 1.7 million refugees from Afghanistan.
The sit-in that has blocked the Quetta-Chaman highway hails support from key Pakistani political parties, including Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, Balochistan Awami Party, Pashtun Tahafooz Movement, Jamiat Ulema Islam, Jamaat-e-Islami, and Pakistan Muslim League (Q). Addressing the protesters earlier this month, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party’s chairman Mahmood Khan Achakzai warned that the protest could spread to other cities if the decision was not reversed.
Chaman alongside the key Torkham border has been swamped by undocumented refugees, who were moved from detention centers inside Pakistan or directly taken to the border area. According to the UN, more than 327,000 Afghans have been expelled as of November 11, with an average of over 17,000 crossing the border each day. Most of the returnees are women and children.
“The borderline is not of importance to me… Through generations we have been living together,” said Shinwari, who also possesses land and properties on both sides of the Durand Line. “My father and I built our business in Chaman on our land. Why should I show my passport and visa when commuting in my home?”
Protestors say that so far they have been crossing the 100 kilometers-long border using local documents. More than 250,000 predominantly ethnic Pashtuns, mainly from Achakzai and Noorzai tribes live on both sides of the Chaman border. They argue that the new policy to require visas for crossing the border negatively impacts tens of thousands of people. They have established the All Party Tajir Committee to voice their concerns with the authorities.
“For 70 years, people of Chaman-Spin Boldak have been crossing the border daily to visit families, do business, or seek treatments in hospitals without visas, and the [Pakistani] government made an abrupt decision to enforce visas,” Sadiq Achakzai, spokesperson of the Committee, told KabulNow. “This is unacceptable.”
Achakzai said that the Pakistani authorities had assured Pashtuns along the border region in the past that Afghan Tazkera and Pakistani identity cards—coupled with biometric screening—were “legally acceptable” for border crossing. He argued that Pakistan’s visa system will deprive more than 40,000 people who cross the border daily—including business owners, traders, drivers, and lughari (wheelers)—and is resulting in a huge economic loss that will threaten people’s livelihoods.
Pakistan claims its mass deportation scheme, including border restrictions, will prevent terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, therefore ensuring the security of the state and the welfare of the public. Balochistan’s Information Minister Jan Achakzai said that arrangements have been put in place to implement the plan despite pressures, including from political parties. Hetold the Dawn Newspaper that several passport offices, including in Chaman and Qila Abdullah, have been set up to issue traders and travelers passports to encourage legal border crossing.
Sadiq Achakzai, the spokesperson, refuted such assertions as “false pretext”, saying Pakistan’s policy is harming civilians and splitting families and tribes. He criticized the government’s arbitrary policy, which he said was aimed at scapegoating traders and people for its internal problems.
Mr. Achakzai said that the border is an economic lifeline and that imposing curbs will starve people. “How can we accept the state’s decision which requires large numbers of daily wagers, drivers, families, or the sick seeking medical treatment, all of whom live along the border, to travel every day using a passport and visa?” he asked, stating that the protesters will continue the sit-in until the government reverts to previous border crossing regulations.