Last October, Germany launched a humanitarian admission programme for Afghans at risk of persecution by the Taliban, with the goal of bringing up to 1,000 people from Afghanistan to Germany per month.
Eight months later, not a single person has reached Germany through the programme, which was temporarily suspended at the end of March – along with the processing of all visas for Afghans – due to allegations the process was being abused.
As a result, thousands of people in the programme’s pipeline – as well as others who were in the process of being admitted to Germany before the programme was created – have found themselves stranded in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries, where they were directed to travel by German authorities in order to have their visas processed.
The German Foreign Office confirmed to The New Humanitarian that there had been “isolated indications of possible attempts at abuse” of the visa process for Afghans. It clarified that almost all these cases involved either people who had already moved to a third country trying to apply for the programme, which is only for people currently in Afghanistan, or people trying to pass off relatives – such as nieces or nephews – as members of their nuclear family.
“These types of cases of abuse and attempts at fraud, in general, are our daily bread at our visa offices worldwide,” a Foreign Office spokesperson told The New Humanitarian.
In one case, an applicant was flagged as a potential threat. “This person did not enter [Germany] and the procedure was stopped before it was completed,” the spokesperson said. “I would like to emphasise, once again: Our established test mechanisms worked here.”
Still, the Foreign Office suspended the processing of visas for Afghans and paused the programme in order to integrate new security measures, according to the spokesperson. Around 700 Afghans in the stalled German evacuation pipeline are currently in Iran, and approximately 620 more are waiting in Islamabad, Pakistan, they added.
“The background to the decision was a right-wing media campaign. It was claimed that there was mass abuse of the programme. But there is no evidence of this.”
The selection and vetting of individuals for the programme has since resumed, but the processing of visas remains suspended, according to the German Interior Ministry.
According to several people working for groups who support Afghan refugees, tens of thousands of at-risk Afghans who Germany has a responsibility to evacuate – because they worked for the German military, NGOs, development organisations, or German-funded projects – remain in Afghanistan.
Clara Bünger, a German member of parliament from the Left Party, criticised the decision to pause the humanitarian admission programme and visa process for Afghans as “irresponsible”.
“The background to the decision was a right-wing media campaign. It was claimed that there was mass abuse of the programme. But there is no evidence of this.” Bünger told The New Humanitarian. “The biggest problem is that the programme was initiated too late, and still does not work,” she added.
Sohrab Samime*, 32, is one of the Afghans who has been affected by the suspension of visa processing. Before NATO troops withdrew and the Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021, he worked for a media company that criticised the Taliban and received Western funding.
Unable to make it onto an evacuation flight in August 2021, he spent a year and a half worrying about his safety and wondering if he’d be able to get out. Then, last October, he finally received confirmation from German authorities that he would be granted admission to Germany and was instructed to travel to a neighbouring country in order to be evacuated.
Sohrab had already gone through the cumbersome process of obtaining an Afghan passport and Iranian visa, so he headed with his pregnant wife and two young children to Tehran. But after he arrived, he was told by German authorities that he actually had to travel to Pakistan in order to be evacuated.
“We do not have a Pakistani visa. What will happen if we have to be transferred to Pakistan?” Sohrab told The New Humanitarian by phone from Tehran.
With the processing of visas for Afghans now paused too, he is at a loss about what to do. “What will happen to my child's visa and passport if he is born here? On the other hand, will the [evacuation] process start again?” he asked. “If we are forced to return to Afghanistan, we have no life there because we have sold everything we had, and the Taliban will kill us.”
Nearly two years after NATO forces withdrew and the Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021, legal routes for Afghans to escape Taliban repression and the overlapping humanitarian crises in Afghanistan are few and far between.
During the chaotic Western withdrawal that coincided with the Taliban’s return, more than 120,000 Afghans who had worked with NATO forces over the course of the 20-year war in the country – as well as members of Afghan civil society – were evacuated. But tens of thousands of others were left behind.
NATO countries – including Germany, which in recent years had the second largest troop presence in Afghanistan after the United States – have pledged to continue to help Afghans who worked with Western militaries and governments reach safety, and some have expanded their assistance to people who worked for Western NGOs, journalists, women’s and human rights advocates, civil society activists, and others whose past activities could make them targets for Taliban reprisals.
But critics say those efforts – by the United States, Germany, and others – have been too slow and plagued by setbacks, stranding people in danger or in excruciating states of limbo, pushing thousands to take irregular routes in search of safety.
Since August 2021, the German government has been working with NGOs to identify and evacuate at-risk Afghans on an ad hoc basis. By the beginning of October last year, the German government had helped almost 26,000 Afghans – including former local employees of the German military as well as people whose “commitment to a democratic Afghanistan” could make them a target – come to Germany, according to the Foreign Office.
Another approximately 10,000 have been granted admission, but are yet to travel to Germany.
The humanitarian admission programme launched in October was a formalisation of these efforts “to ensure that… Afghans who are at particular risk will continue to be admitted to Germany”, the Foreign Office spokesperson told The New Humanitarian. It is set to run through September 2025.
But, according to advocacy organisations, Germany’s process of bringing people to safety has been too slow.
More than 30,000 former local staff of the German military, NGOs, and development organisations who have yet to be granted admission to Germany remain in Afghanistan, according to Axel Steier, the founder of Mission Lifeline, a German NGO that supports refugees.
“As far as we know, more than 30 former local staff who were left behind have died,” Bünger added, although she did not specify how.
The Foreign Office said the process of selecting applicants and getting them from Afghanistan to Germany is complicated. “We do not have the tried and tested structures that we would normally use for such a programme,” the spokesperson said, referring to UN agencies. “And we do not have an embassy in Afghanistan.”
Like other Western countries, Germany does not have diplomatic relations with the Taliban government.
To run the programme, the German Foreign Office and Ministry of Interior are working with a network of NGOs to coordinate the process of identifying, selecting, and supporting applicants to undertake the necessary travel to get out of Afghanistan to a neighbouring country, from which they can be evacuated to Germany. The process is managed by a coordination centre funded by the German government. “It is a programme that has never existed in this form or under comparable circumstances,” the spokesperson said.
Bünger, however, said the structure of the programme is not transparent. “Afghans must first register with NGOs, which then forward their data to the German government. However, it is not publicly known which NGOs participate in the programme. People with no connections are thus excluded," she explained.
The Foreign Office told The New Humanitarian that it is the NGOs decision whether they want to publicise their involvement in the programme.
Steier also criticised the programme and its cap of 1,000 people per month. If you include the family members of local staff, there are around 120,000 people Germany has an obligation to evacuate who remain in Afghanistan, he said. “In short, the public is largely misled by the [humanitarian admission programme] to present the low number of total admissions as a heroic feat," he added.
‘An uncertain limbo’
Meanwhile, it’s unclear when the processing of visas for at-risk Afghans will resume. The Foreign Office has said that when it does restart, it will take place in Pakistan but not Iran. “It probably won’t be possible to implement adapted security mechanisms in Tehran,” the spokesperson said.
That is difficult news for Afghans like Sohrab and his family who were granted admission to Germany and had already travelled to Tehran. The Foreign Office said it will support these applicants to travel to Islamabad. But it’s unclear how that will work – or how long it will take – for those who do not already have Pakistani visas.
“The political situation in Pakistan is getting worse by the day, children have no access to education, most Afghans cannot work and therefore have no income.”
Those stranded in Iran and Pakistan – as well as many other Afghans who are not eligible for the evacuation programme – face a difficult situation. Both countries have long hosted large numbers of Afghan refugees, and at least 1 million have entered Iran and 600,000 have entered Pakistan since 2021, according to the NGO Refugees International.
Both countries have also been less than welcoming in recent years. Iran has forcibly returned at least 125,000 Afghans to Afghanistan since the beginning of this year. And Pakistan has also been cracking down.
"Affected people are yet again in an uncertain limbo regarding when their process will resume,” Herta Mirea, who works in Pakistan for Kabul Luftbrücke, a German civil society initiative aimed at helping at-risk Afghans, told The New Humanitarian, referring to the processing of visas.
“The political situation in Pakistan is getting worse by the day, children have no access to education, most Afghans cannot work and therefore have no income,” Mirea added.
"There are such large numbers of Afghans, and neither the Pakistani government nor UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) is able to help them much,” Devone Cone, senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees international, told The New Humanitarian. “Even for those Afghans who are better off financially, renewing their visas is often cost-prohibitive and they fear deportation."
Omid Omari*, 21, who was granted admission to Germany before the humanitarian admission programme was launched, has been waiting in Pakistan for a German visa for over a year.
Omid and his brother were human rights activists in Kabul. His brother was detained in November 2021 and released on the condition that he stop his activities. Omid decided to flee to Pakistan but was quickly deported back to Kabul, where he lived in hiding for three months before returning again to Pakistan.
He was scheduled to fly on 6 April from Islamabad to Germany, but he received an email on 2 April informing him that the flight had been cancelled. Omid still doesn’t know if and when he will be placed on another flight. Like Sohrab, he is stranded.
“My Pakistani visa expired more than eight months ago,” he said. “I feel trapped and uncertain about the future."
*The names of Afghans in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
Edited by Eric Reidy.