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Home > Publications > Reports > Possibilities and impediments to cross-border movement in Afghanistan

Possibilities and impediments to cross-border movement in Afghanistan

Briefing prepared by Ahmad Shuja Jamal, Special Advisor to Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), who is a researcher and former Afghan civil servant now in exile in Australia. Until August 2021, Shuja served as director-general for international relations and regional cooperation at the Afghan National Security Council, where he helped manage Afghanistan’s security partnerships.

Afghanistan’s neighbours closed their borders to Afghans after 15 August 2021. Some have reopened them to foot traffic and flights in recent months as Kabul airport works to resume full operations.

Though the issuance of visas remains severely restricted, Afghans with appropriate paperwork can easily access outbound commercial flights from Kabul to Pakistan, Iran and the UAE. It is possible to negotiate with these and other countries to issue temporary visas for Afghans being considered for resettlement to Australia.

Cross border travel from Afghanistan
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Overview

Afghanistan’s neighbours closed their borders to Afghans after 15 August 2021. Some have reopened them to foot traffic and flights in recent months as Kabul airport works to resume full operations. Though the issuance of visas remains severely restricted, Afghans with appropriate paperwork can easily access outbound commercial flights from Kabul to Pakistan, Iran and the UAE. It is possible to negotiate with these and other countries to issue temporary visas for Afghans being considered for resettlement to Australia.

Possibility of travel to neighbouring countries

It remains possible for Afghans to enter Pakistan, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), or to transit through them to other destinations. Further details are as follows:

  • Pakistan: The land borders at Torkham and Chaman remain open to Afghans with visas. Based on RCOA’s consultation with the Pakistani embassy in Kabul and pilots from two Afghan airlines – a state-owned and a private one – there are five flights a week by each of these airlines to Islamabad. However, Pakistan has not issued new visas to Afghans in months. Some Afghans pay hefty fees to brokers who promise to obtain visas for them from Pakistani embassies and consulates. Visa-free transit through Islamabad is possible.
  • Iran: Land and air borders are open to Afghans with visas, and Iran is issuing visas to Afghans provided they deposit over AFN30,000 in ‘surety’ payments, which they will lose if they don’t return after expiration of their visa. Iranian airline Mahan runs flights to and from Kabul. Visa-free transit through Iran is possible.
  • UAE: Based on RCOA’s outreach to pilots of a private and a state-owned Afghan airline, there are six flights a week by each airline to the UAE. Although the UAE had imposed COVID-related visa restrictions for Afghans since 2020, there is now a complete ban on the issuance of visas to Afghans, though visa-free transit is possible.
  • Central Asian countries: These countries had COVID-related restrictions to travel in 2021, but travel has become even more restricted since 15 August 2021. Currently no flights operate to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Summary

Afghans with travel documents or visas can transit through Pakistan, Iran or the UAE. Afghans with visas or other documentation can also fly to these destinations.

Situation at Kabul airport

US Marines commandeered control of the Kabul airport on the afternoon of 15 August 2021. They relinquished control on 31 August and, for a brief period, Qatari military ran the air traffic control. Afghan civil aviation under the Taliban is back in control, though they lack the internationally certified personnel and the specialised equipment – fire suppression, meteorological, radar and other technology – to run an international airport compliant with International Civil Aviation Organization standards. Most flights are touching down by pilots’ use of sight, which makes touchdown difficult in low-visibility weather. Turkey and Qatar have been discussing with the Taliban ways to manage the airport jointly and pave the way for the resumption of international flights. These conversations are ongoing.

Summary

If Qatar, Turkey and the Taliban reach an agreement, regular commercial flights out of Kabul airport could expand.

Afghans using other means

In the absence of visas, Afghans are resorting to other means to flee Taliban persecution, seek livelihoods in neighbouring countries, or to undergo processing for resettlement in a third country such as Australia. RCOA has spoken to Afghan families who have been resettled to Germany in January 2022 from Islamabad after they paid a bribe to Pakistani border officials to let them through in October 2021. RCOA has also spoken to Afghan families who have active cases of Humanitarian Parole with the United States who have received visas to Ecuador and Brazil, where they can live as the US processes their applications. It is possible for Australia to negotiate a similar arrangement with these countries so that Afghans being considered for relocation to Australia can travel to these countries – or to neighbouring countries like Pakistan or Iran – to live in safety as they await the outcome of their cases.

Summary

Faced with visa restrictions, Afghans have found other ways to enter Pakistan safely and undergo processing. While these routes are irregular, Australia could regularise them through dialogue with Pakistan and other countries.

Assessment of risk

At-risk Afghans are constantly reassessing their risk level and the possibility of managing risk inside Afghanistan versus the dangers associated with irregular travel out of the country. These individuals and families are rapidly running out of coping mechanisms, among them financial means to relocate periodically and social networks to support them. It is critical for the safety of Australia’s LEEs and others who qualify for resettlement that Australia not only process them for relocation but also assist them to avoid immediate danger by gaining access to neighbouring countries.

Summary

For at-risk Afghans who have exhausted their coping mechanisms inside Afghanistan, Australia should help them gain access to third countries as they await processing for relocation.

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