On the challenge of secure, but open borders

Posted On January 26, 2018

As part of my job, I get to travel across the Europe and Central Asia region and sometimes beyond. But as much as I love experiencing new cultures, traditions, languages or cuisines, unfortunately my travels aren’t always as exciting as they may sound.

The nightmare typically begins at the airport. Upon arrival to another country, as a Tajik national, I get asked intrusive and often absurd questions. I also need visas to travel to most places, including three neighbouring countries: China, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.

Because of this personal experience, I can easily identify with the thousands of people who cross the 1,300 kilometre-long border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan every day. As a Programme Officer on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights, I oversee and monitor a border management programme. I’m deeply familiar with this intricate border. It’s also one that I think sheds important light on the delicate balance between national security on the one hand, and personal freedom and dignity on the other.

This is important because borders play a critical role in development. They allow people to trade, see their loved ones and get medical treatment. They also have crucial implications for managing conflict and setting up government services.

But I’ve always found it difficult to accept that borders can be safe and open at the same time - at least in a Central Asian context where challenges can easily spill over into the neighbouring country.

I recently spent a week assessing border crossings at six different crossing points between Shoghun and Ishkashim. Highly mountainous, the area is considered one of the most vulnerable because it is disaster prone and hard to reach. Every Saturday, hundreds of people cross the border at these different points. They form long lines between 10am and 3pm: once going into Tajikistan so they can buy and sell goods ranging from locally produced agricultural goods to handicrafts and clothing on the market, and the second time to return to the Afghan side.

People examine goods at a border market

By allowing people to trade, earn income and gain access to varied products and services, border crossing play an important role in development. Photos: UNDP Tajikistan

Since 2015, UNDP and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have been working together to enhance security in the border areas of Tajikistan and Afghanistan to reduce the threat of terrorism and religious extremism, illicit narcotics trade and cross-border crimes, including human trafficking. Though they used to be true bottlenecks, these posts have become modern transit points, equipped with CCTV technology but also, interestingly, incredibly open and sophisticated.

In Tem, situated in Khorog town of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, I found the jewel in the crown of this whole network. There, Tajik and Afghan border officials have formally agreed on a simplified border crossing procedure, doing away with entry visas altogether. A day before the market, Afghan border officials submit a list of visitors to their Tajik counterparts, who verify that information.

Once at the market, I noticed many visitors carried different types of identification. They were allowed to use electoral cards, national IDs, or even driving licenses. This was truly progressive and incredibly helpful in terms of letting the most vulnerable people to access jobs and make income.

The people came to the market from the highly mountainous Badakhshan province of Afghanistan, which is remote, isolated and economically disadvantaged.

Needless to say, this is a life-saver. I met an Afghan woman who was selling a few bundles of dried medical herbs and many people who bought soap, clothing, oil and other agricultural and non-agricultural goods otherwise not available or not affordable in their own villages.

The numbers confirm how important these border posts are. In 2017 alone, via the six target border crossing points, hundreds of Afghan citizens crossed the border, and dozens got emergency medical aid in Tajikistan. Those were mostly women seeking medical aid following complications in giving birth.

The border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan was drawn in 1895, dividing entire communities. But the people I met refused to take it as a fait accompli. It was touching to watch them reconnect despite their many limitations. And rewarding to see our work is clearly paying off.