Amélie* is now 78-years-old. She came to Pakistan in the 1960s, after marrying a Pakistani man. She has contributed to the Pakistani community in various ways, but she is proudest of supervising the construction, and heading the administration, of one of the most prestigious schools in Lahore. She has also birthed four children in the country, and since then become a grandmother.
Now, Amélie wants to travel to abroad to meet her son and grandchildren over their winter holidays. But she can’t. Her Pakistan Origin Card (POC) is nearing its expiry, and without it she can’t enter Pakistan. She still holds her Swiss citizenship, but “Pakistan is my home, I can’t risk being uprooted from here, I can’t risk not being let in after living here for 54 years,” she says.
She also can’t apply for a new card because the Ministry of Interior, under Ch. Nisar Ali Khan had placed a ban on issuance and renewal for POCs for foreign spouses in early 2016. There was no concrete reason cited for the ban, but there is speculation. An official at Nadra, who wishes to remain anonymous, says it was a reaction to the drone-strike killing of Mullah Mansour, a Taliban leader, in Balochistan. The idea behind that assumption is that when the POC was first initiated it was Afghans, married to Pakistani women, who applied in droves, and that the Afghans are misusing POCs to spread terrorism.
I tell Amélie that things are looking up for her. In October 2017, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal tweeted that “I have approved restoration of Pakistan Origin Card for spouses of Pakistani nationals.” And earlier this week, Minister of State for Interior Ministry Muhammad Tallal Chaudhry, said: “In principle, we have removed the ban. We have forwarded this to the Cabinet and as soon as they approve the removal of the ban, Nadra will again start processing POCs for foreign spouses.”
The cabinet meets every Monday and Wednesday. Hence there is a possibility that the ban will be lifted on December 18. But Amélie, and other foreign spouses, remain unmoved by this information. “Maybe, but who knows if this promise is real? We have been kept on tenterhooks for too long to trust them,” she says.
The Pakistan Origin Card was conceptualised under Musharaf’s government in 2000. The idea then, according to Nasir Khan, a lawyer who has worked on many Nadra cases, was to facilitate foreigners who have ties with Pakistan and want to live and work here, but don’t necessarily want citizenship, especially if it means giving up their own citizenship.
Additionally, the POC is also hugely beneficial for foreign men who have married Pakistani women. While foreign women, barring those from ‘enemy countries’ have always had the option of applying for citizenship, foreign men have no such rights. Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer who works for the Human Rights Watch, describes this gender discrimination as “tribal misogyny”. For these foreign men, before the POC, getting spousal visas renewed, year-after-year, was the only option.
“Under a spousal visa, you can’t have a bank account, own land, have employment, or even send a Western Union transfer,” says Julija Haider, who is originally from Lithuania, but now lives in Islamabad with her Pakistani husband. She’s one of the lucky ones who currently has a valid POC. She has considered getting Pakistani citizenship, but to do that she’d have to give up her Lithuanian passport and then it would be very cumbersome to travel to meet her parents. In this regard, the POC is a blessing. It allows her to retain her Lithuanian citizenship and simultaneously also enter Pakistan easily.
“But my POC will expire in the middle of next year. I am unwell and my doctors are in the UK. I can go there, but who will guarantee that I can come back to my husband and my life in Pakistan? What if my POC expires by then? This ban makes me feel so powerless,” says Haider.
According to Ijaz, the current ban on POCs for spouses is probably illegal and should be challenged in court. “A ban for a very definite period of time, for an exceptional and cited reason, might work. But a ban like this without any time period should be struck down by a court,” he says.
And there is a history of foreign spouses who have felt victimised by Nadra and the Interior Ministry, and have taken issues to court, and won. Recently, Dolores*, a foreign woman who has been in Pakistan since 2004, took her seemingly valid POC to her bank for some paperwork. There she was told that although her card states validity till 2019, Nadra says that her card is expiring in a month, two years too early. Upon contacting Nadra, after being given the run around for months, Dolores was told that her card will expire in two days, with no additional explanation.
Others may have given up and applied for a spousal visa instead. But Dolores enjoys working at one of Pakistan’s most renowned universities and she didn’t want to lose this employment, so she took Nadra to court, and won.
“You have to fight these ridiculous laws. Why should my card expire in five years when it was given for seven? It makes no sense!” Dolores thinks that the government imposes these bans and these untimely expiries because “they feel that other countries marginalise them, so they also want to marginalise the foreigners in their country. But we shouldn’t let them do this.”
Dolores says that she was inspired by the case of Kristina Petrochenkova, a Russian woman who took Nadra to the Peshawar High Court in 2012 for not issuing her a POC. A local newspaper confirms that despite the fact that Petrochenkova was in the middle of a divorce with her Pakistani husband, and that there was a similar ban on the issuance of POCs, she was granted a card. The case implies that POC laws are vague enough to be interpreted differently by different officials and organisations.
But these are merely the accounts of foreign spouses who have the privilege of connections and the money to take Nadra to court. The ban in question is probably meant to target the thousands of Afghan spouses who are up for issuance and renewal of POCs. Nasir Khan says that the ban is likely a way to buy time to decide what to do with the Afghan spouses.
He also says that while the concept of the POC was well intentioned, the system of procuring one is riddled with inefficiency. “Only 50 per cent of POC applications are successful because they ask for so many documents that most people fail to supply them. The execution of POC didn’t make life in Pakistan for foreigners as easy as it was meant to,” says Khan.
In fact, the system is so inefficient that when the ban was first put, Nadra didn’t even know about it. Sarah*, a thirty-something American woman living in Lahore with her Pakistani husband, only found out about it after filling out the cumbersome application. “I found out about the ban through unofficial sources, because Nadra officials had no idea that there was ban in place,” she says.
Currently, foreign spouses are not making too much noise about their legal statuses expiring, many of them are afraid, too afraid to even reveal their identity. They fear unemployment and deportation, so the government gets away with imposing indefinite bans such as this one. Ijaz, however, points out that till now the state has insulated itself from international interaction, but with CPEC things will change. “The rules and laws about POC and citizenship by marriage will become very relevant in the future because marriages between the incoming Chinese and Pakistani locals are inevitable, what rights will we give these spouses? We will have to honour them. So it’s important for the government to make clear, non-discriminatory laws as soon as they can,” he says.
*Names have been changed to protect identity.