Thu, Sep 24, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Kabul struggling to keep up with passport demand

DESPERATE TO LEAVE:Applications have soared over the past year as more Afghans say they are fed up waiting for the economy and security to improve


A year into Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s tenure, so many Afghans want to leave the country that authorities need to order more machines to print enough passports.

Hundreds of people in recent months have arrived before dawn to line up outside Kabul’s only passport office. Applications have risen sevenfold since last year, overwhelming local staff. It can now take 40 days to get a passport, up from two earlier.

“Most of them are here to get their passports to flee the country,” Sayed Omar Saboor, who heads the office, said in an interview. “People see Afghanistan now with a vague future.”

The exodus reflects worsening economic and security conditions that are setting off alarm bells from Washington to Brussels to Moscow. The uncertainty threatens to push more Afghans to seek asylum in Europe, destabilize areas near Russia’s southern border and upend US plans to end the country’s longest war.

Afghans made up about 13 percent of migrants that traveled to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea from January to last month, according to the UN refugee agency. That is second only to Syrians fleeing civil war.

Many of the Afghans lining up for passports spend hours in the hot sun, the first step in a journey that costs thousands of dollars and puts their lives at risk. Most are heading to Europe.

“We all have run out of patience,” Nabi Askary, 41, a former nongovernmental organization worker, said in an interview as he lined up earlier this month. “We are seeking to create a good life in other countries for the betterment of us and our children.”

Since visas are extremely difficult to obtain, many pay human smugglers to organize the trips. The most common routes go through Iran and Turkey, and include a combination of travel on airplanes, buses, boats and on foot through rough terrain.

“There are risks all along the route from Afghanistan to the Turkish coast,” said Richard Danziger, chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration in Afghanistan. “Migrants can be beaten up and sometimes even killed, their money stolen. Often it can be the smugglers themselves that are in league with the aggressors.”

The US spent about US$700 billion on the Afghan conflict since 2001, more than tripling local incomes in that time and spurring the country’s nominal GDP to expand fivefold. As that spigot closes, growth is slowing.

Afghanistan’s economy expanded 1.7 percent last year, down from 12 percent two years earlier, according to the Asian Development Bank. GDP growth is projected at 2.5 percent this year. Foreign investment has fallen, trade is depressed and mining projects have failed to see much progress.

At the same time, violence has continued unabated. More people were killed or wounded in the first half of this year than in the same period a year earlier, according to the UN.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating as Islamic State militants fight to gain a foothold.

Taliban attacks on Kabul have intensified since the group named Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour its new leader. Mansour said on Tuesday that peace would only be possible if the US withdraws all of its troops and the Afghan government severs any security ties.

The instability has eroded support for Ghani. About 52 percent of Afghans were not satisfied with the president in a poll by Tolonews television channel last month. That is up from 33 percent in January.

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