By Ilhamuddin Afghan
The first two months of 2023 has proved to be deadly for Pakistan with two major terror attacks claiming more than 100 lives. Both these attacks have targeted the security establishment of Pakistan and has been linked to the home-grown terror organisation Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan attributes this spurt in terror attacks to the inaction by Taliban in controlling the movement of militants linked with TTP. As a consequence, Pakistan has unilaterally decided to restrict the movement of Afghans coming to Peshawar through the Torkham border.
Traditionally, Afghan patients visits the hospitals in Peshawar to receive treatment in general medicine, cardiology, gynaecology, and gastroenterology. This is despite the challenges of higher costs, language barriers, and accommodation problems. As the legal process of getting travel documents to enter Pakistan is lengthy and difficult, many Afghan patients enter Pakistan through this border post without proper documentation. Pakistan officials in collusion with the hospital authorities have allowed to enter Pakistan as this is a significant source of revenue for the hospitals in Peshawar especially the Rehman Medical Institute and North West General Hospital. Every year more than 100,000 Afghan patients visit these hospitals for various treatments.
These hospitals charge more from Afghan patients than charged for Pakistanis. Afghan patients have also reported to have been exploited by doctors and translators who charge high fees for laboratory tests, surgery, accommodation, and medication. Despite these difficulties, Afghans have been visiting Peshawar due to lack of such facilities in Afghan areas bordering KP. Until recently, Pakistani authorities manning the border has been tacitly allowing uncheckered movement of Afghans without any serious checks in-return for possible kickbacks as significant number of establishments in Peshawar was dependent on the income generated from these patients.
During the initial period of Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, 2021 and the ceasefire negotiation between Pakistan and TTP, there not much restrictions on the movement along the Torkham border. Afghans who are in need of medical treatment were able to move into Pakistan along with their attendants for visiting hospitals in Peshawar.
But Pakistan has recently tightened security measures and controls at the border crossings with Afghanistan since TTP has increased terror attacks within Pakistan. To hide their inefficiency in controlling the terror group TTP whose militants have safe haven in the tribal areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan has turned towards Afghans coming into Pakistan for treatment.
Afghan forces deployed along the border has been disturbed by the treatment of Afghans by Pakistani authorities in the border posts and this has also resulted in frequent clashes between both forces along the border. Recently, on the 20th February 2023, there was an exchange of gunfire between Pakistani and Afghan border guards at the Torkham border crossing. It is learnt that Pakistani border guards had been fired upon by Taliban forces stationed on the Afghan side of the border. The Taliban subsequently closed the Torkham crossing due to Pakistan’s failure to allow Afghans to cross the border for medical reasons. With the closure of border since last three days, there has been long queues of heavy trucks stranded on both sides of the border causing huge hardship to traders and people on both sides.
Since the Taliban takeover and stopping of international flights from Afghanistan, the possibility for Afghans going for treatment to other countries have become difficult. Afghan patients who apply for travel documents with Pakistan mention about the long delays in getting the required documents, resulting in many Afghans trying to cross the border without documents to get the medical treatment on time before it is too late. Doctors in Peshawar also mention that these patients require follow-ups and diagnosis to stop, continue or change their treatments. However due to delay in issuance of travel documents, they attend to their Afghan patients through Skype and other online platforms which has its own limitations. It is to be seen how Pakistan is able to streamline issuance of travel documents at-least for Afghans visiting Pakistan for medical treatment.
Ilhamuddin Afghan is a university professor based in Afghanistan.
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