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Two years on, what has happened to Afghan evacuees?

Hundreds of thousands have been left in limbo, either on short-term visas or in third countries awaiting resettlement.

This is a picture showing a group of people wait outside a fence and wall. On the other side are US soldiers. These people await as many evacuate Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 2021. Ali M. Latifi/TNH
For 16 days in August 2021, the area around the Kabul International Airport become a makeshift camp as thousands of Afghans rushed towards the facility in the hope of getting on board an evacuation flight.

Two years after the Taliban’s return to power, hundreds of thousands of Afghans promised resettlement are either struggling in legal limbo in new host countries or trapped abroad awaiting processing by Western nations that vowed to rescue their Afghan allies.


More than 124,000 civilians were evacuated from Afghanistan in August and September 2021, but many find themselves struggling with short-term and restrictive visa situations in the United States and Europe, as their hosts continue to ponder just how unsafe the country is.


Many more remain stuck in Pakistan, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and in African countries, desperate for visas, waiting interminably for news, fearing deportation, and contemplating risky journeys to Europe and the United States to try to claim asylum if all else fails.


As it begins its third year back in power, the Taliban-led government is facing growing accusations of rights abuses, including social, economic, and educational restrictions on women, even as it warns Western countries against encouraging skilled Afghans to leave.


The Afghan economy is also struggling. Ongoing banking restrictions and foreign aid reductions have shattered domestic and regional investor confidence, resulting in the loss of more than 700,000 jobs since the summer of 2021. Meanwhile, a string of natural disasters has exacerbated what the UN has described as the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis”, but only 23% of funds for this year’s humanitarian response plan have been received.


Against this backdrop, Afghans continue to leave the country in large numbers, only to be confronted by crackdowns in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran that are driving many onto migration routes towards Europe that have become deadlier as borders close and people smugglers take advantage of the crisis for profit. In a sign of just how desperate the situation has become, some Afghans have even been flying to South America and trekking through the dangerous Darién Gap to try to claim asylum in the United States.

As options for Afghans trying to build safe and sustainable lives shrink both at home and abroad, The New Humanitarian spoke to more than a dozen who are seeking resettlement but stuck around the globe – from Abu Dhabi to Pakistan, from the United States to Britain – to find out how they have been dealing with their precarious situations.


Policy changes and ‘prison-like’ conditions

In the United States, Britain, and Germany – the three nations that led the 20-year NATO mission in Afghanistan, providing the bulk of the support and financing of the Western-backed former government – Afghans hoping for resettlement said they were getting no clear answers about their futures.


Last September, the United States announced an end to temporary entry for Afghans awaiting resettlement decisions. In March – after only eight months and zero resettlements – Germany indefinitely suspended a programme meant to resettle 1,000 Afghans a month. In the UK, Afghans who did manage to make it in, including those who had assisted British Forces, are now facing potential homelessness as they’re being ordered to leave state-funded hotel accommodation. 


The situation is no better in other nations. More than 3,200 Afghans are still languishing in Albanian tourist resorts awaiting resettlement visas. In the United Arab Emirates, at least 1,000 Afghans are stuck in a resettlement camp where Human Rights Watch says they are “locked up … in cramped, miserable conditions with no hope of progress on their cases”.


Feraidoon Azhand, a 45-year-old journalist, is one of them.


When Azhand arrived in Abu Dhabi aboard an evacuation flight on 23 August 2021, he was certain his stay would be short. He had worked for several leading media outlets, including the BBC. He had also served as a spokesperson for the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development under the Western-backed government.

“In the initial months, we were left in a state of uncertainty, crammed together in the camp with no sense of who was genuinely under threat [back in Afghanistan] and who wasn’t.”

Based on the Taliban’s track record, both roles could put Azhand in danger. The BBC was banned from broadcasting in Afghanistan last year, while the Taliban has regularly been accused of detaining, beating, and torturing Afghan journalists. Rights groups and media outlets have also reported on the continued targeting, disappearing, and retaliatory killing of former Afghan government workers, all of which flies in the face of the Islamic Emirate’s supposed promises of a general amnesty.


Despite the clear dangers, Azhand said he has had to endure eight rounds of asylum-related interviews over the 23 months he has been in Abu Dhabi. And he is still no closer to leaving the Emirates Humanitarian City (EHC) camp than he was when he arrived, just a week after the Taliban’s return to power.


“In the initial months, we were left in a state of uncertainty, crammed together in the camp with no sense of who was genuinely under threat [back in Afghanistan] and who wasn’t,” Azhand told The New Humanitarian. He said the “prison-like” conditions in the camp – and the unbearably long waits – have led to growing frustration among the Afghans there who were promised resettlement in Western countries.


After 11 months in the camp, one young man reportedly attempted to take his own life last year. Weeks later, Emirati authorities confirmed the death of a former Afghan Supreme Court justice in the same camp. The judge, who died of a heart attack, had spent more than a year awaiting resettlement. 


Azhand told The New Humanitarian how one of his friends chose to return to Afghanistan earlier this year due to the painful wait and suffocating conditions in the camp, despite the very real risks he faced in doing so.


Canada has pledged to take in up to 1,000 Afghans from the UAE camps, but has provided few details of who exactly, or when. Each week, seven to 10 people are transferred out of the camp, but Azhand said those who remain have no sense of where those people go, who took them where, or when they themselves may be able to leave. 


"Two years of our life have gone to waste in this camp,” Azhand said. “I can go for up to 10 days without even opening the door of my half-room."


Last November, after he had already been waiting for more than a year, Azhand applied for a P2 visa – created by the US government in August 2021 and offered exclusively to Afghans who have worked for a US-based NGO or media organisation in Afghanistan. He was told it would take another 14 months to be relocated. 


He has received scant information since. Azhand said that when he enquires about the status of his application, he is given the same vague answer: “Your application is under process. We will contact you if there is any update.”


What he hadn’t been told, however, was that as of July 2022, 45,000 Afghans had already applied for the P2 or the P1 – a visa reserved for people “known” by the former US embassy in Kabul and specifically referred by a US official for resettlement. As of April 2023, just under 3,000 Afghans have been resettled as part of those two schemes.


Stuck in Pakistan fearing deportation

International organisations working with Afghan evacuees said Azhand’s experience isn’t uncommon, and that despite US and European government promises following the Taliban takeover, tens of thousands of Afghans are stuck trying to navigate their way through bureaucratic red tape.


Campbell Dunsmore, policy analyst at the International Rescue Committee, told The New Humanitarian that of the 90,000 Afghans who have arrived in the United States over the last two years, only 18% have been granted asylum. The rest have been given two-year temporary “humanitarian parole” visas, which do not entitle them to a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency – despite the fact that Washington still doesn’t recognise the Islamic Emirate as the official government of Afghanistan.


Even though Afghans meet the definition of a refugee in the United States, many continue to “find themselves under a cloud of legal uncertainty – unable to plan for the future”, he added.


Last year, it was reported that 90% of Afghans seeking entry into the United States on humanitarian grounds had their cases rejected. President Joe Biden’s administration has also been accused of putting Afghans through a more rigorous and costly process than Ukrainians. 


In a recent report to Congress, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Washington’s top Afghanistan watchdog, admitted that “bureaucratic dysfunction and under-staffing” have led to bottlenecks in evacuation and vetting processes, and that “many thousands” of Afghan allies remain in high-risk situations as a result.

“I went to so many human rights organisations and they all said the same thing, ‘Sorry, you weren’t actually arrested. We can only help those women who were arrested.’”

One such place is Pakistan, where at least 20,000 of the 600,000 Afghans who have newly arrived in the country over the last two years are still awaiting resettlement through the US Refugee Admissions Program, or USRAP.


Washington claims the reason so many Afghans have been left waiting is because Islamabad won’t allow for the creation of Resettlement Support Centers, which it says are required for the processing of applications, but the Pakistani government says this would lead to even more Afghans pouring across its borders.


Whatever the reason for the specific backlog in Pakistan, Afghans say they’re not safe there. Despite the changing risks in Afghanistan, neither Pakistan nor Iran ever stopped deporting Afghan refugees. In January 2022, Turkey restarted its deportations after a months-long halt.


Sanam Kabiri, a women’s rights activist and former teacher who is originally from Afghanistan’s northern province of Kunduz, told The New Humanitarian she is one of the thousands of Afghans who feel trapped in Islamabad.


After she took the risk of defending the rights of Afghan women and girls, she never imagined her family would end up becoming stuck in Pakistan. She arrived there last September, days after she said the Taliban raided her family home in Kunduz and held several of them hostage for three days. She herself was in hiding at the time.


Kabiri turned to several NGOs and rights organisations in Pakistan, thinking they would live up to their repeated promises of assistance to Afghans in need, particularly women – but she quickly found herself feeling dejected and alone: “I went to so many human rights organisations and they all said the same thing, ‘Sorry, you weren’t actually arrested. We can only help those women who were arrested.’”


Kabiri expressed her confusion that people who should be helping her were using her good fortune against her: “Look at me, I risked my life and my family’s lives to stand up for my fellow Afghan women and now I’m stuck in Pakistan struggling to survive.”


Those struggles include trying to find ways to earn an income amid Pakistan’s rapid economic decline, worrying if she can renew her family members’ visas, and all the while evading Pakistani police who are known to routinely round up, detain, and deport Afghans.


Because they arrived at different times in order to limit suspicion in Afghanistan, each member of Kabiri’s family were issued different dated visas, which they paid brokers anywhere from $300 to $1,200 for. 


The visas of several members of her family have already expired, which has forced many of them to lock themselves in the house for fear of being spotted by the police until they manage to get them extended.


What next?

Kabiri has applied for asylum status with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR – the first step towards resettlement – but she said she has been told it will take at least eight months to secure even an interview. She has not been impressed by the process: “I call and call, but they only respond when they want, and even then it’s just short replies.”


Kabiri said she knew of eight families just in her area of Islamabad that have been waiting for British visas for more than 18 months. “They were told to come to Pakistan, the embassy took their passports, and now they’re just waiting, unsure of what to do in Pakistan but too scared to return to Afghanistan.”


In a report the Association of Wartime Allies, an advocacy organisation for Special Immigrant Visa-eligible individuals, said it will take the average Afghan 2.75 years, or 1,000 days, to get through the entire SIV process for the United States. SIGAR estimates that by the Taliban’s first full year in power, more than 500,000 Afghans were awaiting the processing of their Special Immigrant Visas. 


Beyond the logistical constraints, these backlogs are also the result of “a lack of political will among lawmakers” to provide additional human and financial resources required to speed up the processes, said Dunsmore, from the IRC.


Groups like the IRC, Refugees International, and Human Rights Watch have all called on the US Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. The bipartisan bill – aimed at streamlining the process of resettling Afghans and creating a path towards permanent residency – failed to pass in December 2022 but was reintroduced last month.


The situation for Afghans in the EU isn’t much better. In May, the IRC released a report saying that only 271 Afghans have been fully resettled as refugees in 2022. The rest are given short-term protections that must be renewed every one to five years.


Like most Afghans, Azhand, the journalist stuck in the camp in the UAE, wasn’t aware of any of this information. Regardless, he said his experiences over the last two years have all but extinguished any hope he has for a speedy restart to his life in a new country.


At his walled-in camp in Abu Dhabi’s industrial zone, he was resigned to his fate: “It seems it will take years before we can leave this place.”


Ali M. Latifi reported from Istanbul, Masroor Mansoor from Kabul, and Wadud Salangi from Germany.

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