Shunning Pakistan, Afghans rush to India for quality healthcare

In 2010, the Indian embassy in Kabul issued over 44,000 visas to Afghan nationals, which has been seen a sharp, steady rise in the last few years. "This year, we expect to issue over 60,000 visas," an Indian embassy official told a visiting IANS correspondent.

It is a steep upswing from 2003, when the embassy had issued 7,000 visas throughout the year - recording a growth of 528 percent till 2010.

Besides the Kabul missions, the four other Indian consulates in Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and Kandahar also issued over 5,000 visas last year.

The other foreign missions issuing a large number of visas are Afghanistan's two immediate neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, as well as some of the Central Asian republics.

All of them had hosted huge numbers of Afghan refugees, with many Afghans still travelling to and fro between these nations.

Medical visas now account for about 40 percent of the Indian visas, with the rest distributed among business, student and tourist categories.

"Most of the rise is linked to the increase in issuance of medical visas, as well as one for an accompanying person," said the official.

While Afghans have been regularly coming to India for medical treatment, a large number often used to earlier go to Pakistani cities, with Peshawar being a major destination for patients. "But, now the applicants are preferring to travel longer to India as the security situation there is deteriorating," he said.

But it's not just the insecurity in the surrounding regions, Afghans are also attracted at the quality of Indian healthcare, which is much cheaper than in western countries. "We are hearing more and more from the applicants that even the Pakistani doctors are recommending them to go to India for treatment," the official told IANS.

Following two targeted attacks on the Indian embassy, including the 2008 bomb attack which took the life of an Indian diplomat and defence attaché, visa operations had been moved from the complex, mainly due to security reasons.

Now, they have been outsourced to a private company, whose main job is to collect the forms. Thereafter, the four embassy consular officers will interview the visa applicants and check whether their papers are in order.

"Our turnaround time for issuing visas is a minimum of 48 hours," he said.

During the peak season in October and November, the Indian embassy issues over 350 visas, daily. Next month, the visa issuance process is likely to be upgraded, when it joins the Ministry of Home Affairs' immigration, visa and foreigners registration and tracking project (IVFRT).

According to sources, it was necessary to bring Kabul on-board the IVFRT, so that the Delhi Foreigners Registration Regional Office could also be upgraded as per schedule. "Most of the applicants who come to the Delhi office for visa extensions are Afghans," said the official.

Not surprisingly, an Indian visa is a much-priced item in Afghanistan, with high-level members of the government and bureaucracy often contacting officers in the embassy with their requests.

"An Indian visa is often the difference between life and death," said the official.

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