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November 19, 2023

Tighter travel restrictions bring local economy to a near halt

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he new immigration rules for the Pak-Afghan border crossing have triggered massive protests in Chaman.

On October 21, a large number of residents from across the district, gathered to stage a demonstration against the mandatory passport policy introduced by the government.

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Among the demands was a call to withdraw the mandatory passport policy and restore the old system (requiring only a CNIC and Tazkira for entry into Pakistan), stop the mistreatment of Afghan refugees and restore a rule allowing rotary packages for daily wage workers.

As the sit-in, attended by tribal elders, political workers and local traders under the auspices of Laghadi Etihad and activists, entered its fourth week this Monday, protestors criticised the stringent travel policy that applies to any movement across the Durand Line.

Leaders of all Pashtun nationalist parties have expressed solidarity with and shown support for those affected by the new travel restrictions.

Business activities on both side of the border have seen a lull.

“It is becoming tough to sustain a business,” says Fida Muhammad with a shaky voice. “I’m having a hard time covering fixed expenses such as rent ever since the policy came into effect,” adds the 35-year-old.

Muhammad has a vehicle repair business. Before the travel policy was introduced, Fida and his two brothers used to cross the Chaman border twice daily to purchase spare parts from Spin Boldak, Afghanistan.

Now, due to closure of shops on the other side of the border, he’s finding it difficult to make the ends meet. “Over 300 shops [selling spare parts] have shut down in Spin Boldaks Kakar Market because of the uncertainty and low footfall,” says Muhammad who has been participating in the sit-in. “Since markets in Karachi, Lahore and Quetta are all dependent on the spares business in Chaman, the decision to restrict movement will result in a slow down of business all over the country,” he adds.

Chaman is also the hub for trade in edible items.

Several Afghan traders used to travel from Spin Boldak daily to the town to sell a variety of items including cosmetics, old shoes, used tires, clothes and electronic products and return to their hometown by the evening.

According to a conservative estimate, 14,000 to 16,000 small-scale traders, locally known as laghadi used to cross the border two to four times daily to buy and sell their goods.

In addition to that, nearly two to three thousand traders who run big enterprises as well as up to 1,500 businessmen, running import-export businesses used to cross the border daily.

The crossing was also a part of an old trade route – containers loaded with merchandise from countries such as Japan and Dubai also used to arrive via the Chaman border.

“We are from the same clan. We have relatives on both sides of the border,” says Ghous Ullah, an organiser of the sit-in. “We bury our dead in the same cemetery. We are one people and our joys and sorrows are shared. How can the government impose such a draconian rule without our consent?” he asks. “Now, it appears, we will need a passport to attend the funeral of a loved one [on Afghan side]” he says.

Ghous says the border trade is an economic lifeline for tribal people on both sides. “Border trade is a major source of income without which we cannot feed our children,” he stresses. “It is simply impossible for thousands of people to cross the border daily under the new rules. We will not accept it,” adds Ghous.“We request the government to restore the old system of CNIC and Tazkira,” he says.

Olas Yar Ackakzai, another resident of the city, has been participating in the sit-in since its beginning. He says he owns land on both sides of the border and sustains his family with the seasonal harvest. “We have yet to recover from the damage caused by border fencing. Now the government has imposed yet another policy that amounts to our ‘economic murder’,” he says.
According to Achakzai, more than 80 percent of Chaman’s population is dependent on the cross-border trade. “Cross-border trade is the only source of income we have in the absence of industries. Our livelihood depends on it. The visa requirements will make things incredibly difficult for us,” he says.

After the protest erupted, several attempts were made by the government and security officials to ease the tensions through negotiation. However, these attempts have not borne fruit.

On October 8, Chief Minister Ali Mardan Domki held a meeting with tribal elders in Chaman. He informed the tribal elders about the decision taken by the apex committee.

The chief minister announced that presentation of the passport would be mandatory from November 1. The change in policy was opposed by tribal elders who demanded its immediate withdrawal.

On October 26, a spokesperson for the Balochistan government, Jan Achakazi, held meetings with the sit-in committee. Jan Achakzai said that the government had made it easier for citizens to obtain a passport.

On October 25, Lt Gen Asif Ghafoor, the corps commander, had addressed the sit-in committee. He had said that a facilitation mechanism would be proposed soon.

Earlier, on October 11, the organisers of the sit-in protest had received a threat alert from Chaman police. The police had asked the protesters to end the sit-in or move the demonstration to an enclosed space.

Reacting to the threat alert, Faiz Muhammad said, “it is better to die in an explosion than die a slow death from starvation.” He called the alert an attempt to disperse the protestors and pressure them into giving up resistance.

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets  @Jaffar_Journo

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