Why are Afghans still seeking out the ‘weakest’ passport in the world?

Crowds outside the Kabul passport office in October 2021. Screenshot from Voice of America YouTube channel. Fair use.

This article was written by Shahab for Hasht-e-Subh Daily. An edited version is republished on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement. 

After the Taliban announced it would begin accepting paper passport applications on January 10, the passport office in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, saw tens of thousands of people flock with applications. Previously, applicants had to register online and await their turn, unsure when it would arrive. Some waited for more than a year, and giving bribes to expedite the process has become customary.

Videos capturing the chaotic scene reveal that approximately 30,000 people attempted to reach the passport office. In response, the Taliban authorities deployed a considerable number of soldiers to manage the crowd and resorted to using force when deemed necessary. Some individuals spent entire nights waiting in line, hoping to expedite their turn. On January 21, the authorities announced they would be suspending in-person applications due to the lack of facilities, crowding, and complaints of chaos. Online applications are also temporarily suspended except for those who are sick and in urgent need of passports.

Here is a YouTube video depicting the crowds outside the passport office in Kabul.

Acquiring the Afghan passport demands substantial patience and skill in navigating bureaucratic hurdles — even as it remains the weakest passport in the world, according to some rankings. The overwhelming congregation near the passport office indicates that citizens continue to seek passports and explore ways to leave the country. Nothing seems able to stop Afghans from leaving, including the harsh and inhumane treatment faced by Afghan migrants abroad and the dangers of being smuggled to Europe and the US. The humanitarian crisis and widespread restrictions brought by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan explain the ongoing exodus.

Rampant unemployment

Economic factors are the primary motivation for people fleeing the country. Afghanistan has never been economically strong, facing longstanding issues of unemployment. However, the arrival of the Taliban in August 2021 significantly harmed the country’s economy, resulting in the loss of numerous job opportunities. By obtaining passports, individuals aim to find employment in countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey to financially support their families. Presently, millions of Afghan migrants live in these countries, bearing a substantial portion of the economic burden for families back home.

Here is a YouTube video about the rising unemployment and poverty in Afghanistan.

The constraints imposed by the Taliban on women’s education and employment have weakened families’ income streams but also compelled young men to pursue employment in foreign countries to provide financial support to their families in Afghanistan. Historically, women in Afghanistan actively contributed alongside men to their families’ well-being, but the restrictions imposed by the Taliban have hindered their economic involvement.

The Taliban’s oppressive treatment of national merchants, coupled with the prevailing sense of despair, discourages entrepreneurs from taking risks and making substantial investments in the country. The recession in the industrial and commercial sectors has led to a lack of job opportunities, forcing unemployed youth to travel to foreign countries.

Hope for a better future

Since the resurgence of the Taliban, there have been efforts to curtail the freedoms of women and girls, such as banning girls from secondary education and denying women access to work, travel, and healthcare. These measures have forced them to retreat to their homes and adopt a medieval lifestyle. The Taliban explicitly prohibits girls beyond the sixth grade from accessing education. While Afghan girls still harbor dreams and ambitions for education and employment, the Taliban’s repressive constraints create formidable obstacles, making it nearly impractical for these aspirations to come to fruition within the Taliban-controlled regions. The educational landscape for boys has also become unfavorable.

Consequently, families with relatively robust economic resources are seeking to emigrate, enabling their children to lead peaceful lives and access modern education. Some families are prepared to incur substantial expenses to ensure their daughters and sons receive a contemporary education, with Iran and Pakistan being preferred destinations for such aspirations.

Some individuals applying for passports either have pending migration cases in the US or have family members residing in the West. They anticipate that their asylum applications will eventually yield favorable results; thus, having a passport is essential for them for eventual career advancement. The United States continues its efforts to relocate individuals eligible for asylum. Since the fall of the Afghan Republic in August 2021, hundreds of thousands of people have successfully migrated to the West.

This continuing trend instills hope in those who remain in Afghanistan and seek ways to escape the turmoil. They hold onto the optimism that their efforts could one day lead to their liberation from Taliban rule. These desperate individuals appeal to anyone who might assist them in this endeavor, eagerly seizing any opportunity to exit Afghanistan, even readily believing in rumors, as demonstrated last year when a rumor of planes taking Afghans to Turkey led to crowds flooding Kabul’s airport.

A dull and prospectless place for young people

A significant portion of the population attempting to obtain passports consists of young individuals who are willing to endure extreme hardships to flee the country. The primary reason for this is that the Taliban regime, besides instilling despondency and hopelessness in the youth, offers no positive outcomes. In the Taliban-controlled areas, music and recreation are prohibited, interaction and gatherings between boys and girls are forbidden, trimming or shaving beards is prohibited, having hair contrary to the Taliban-approved style is prohibited, and education for girls is forbidden. Women’s movement, with or without a male escort, is also restricted.

Naturally, no healthy and spirited young person willingly chooses to live in this oppressive environment. Given that the essence of youth is intertwined with ambition and dreaming big, young people believe that by leaving Afghanistan, they can shape their future as they desire. The main culprit for the despair of the youth is a regime that views everything through the narrow lens of its oppressive ideology. Ironically, the Taliban ask people to stay in the country, but in practice, they have created conditions where escaping seems the only option for the remaining population.

It is possible — though unlikely — that if the Taliban persist, they may unintentionally learn from their governing style. However, just a few years of Taliban rule have been enough to set the country back a century, with its infrastructure destroyed and several generations languishing in deprivation and illiteracy. Without a doubt, compensating for such extensive damage and loss will never be feasible. Opportunities lost will not return.

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