Vulnerable Afghans stranded in limbo six months after fall of Kabul
Six months after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the thousands of Afghans left behind in the evacuation or scattered across the globe after the chaotic exit have little hope of reaching the U.S.
While the evacuation delivered 76,000 Afghans to safety in the U.S., those who left through private charters remain abroad, while an estimated more than 100,000 made vulnerable due to their ties to the U.S or its democracy efforts still reside in Afghanistan.
Another 2,800 remain at so-called lily pad sites after being flown out during the evacuation, living in camps in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
But plans to address these groups have largely failed to materialize in the half a year since the close of the evacuation.
“We’re working with the Biden administration and Congress to really make sure people don’t forget. We felt like it became really easy to focus on 75,000 people,” Joseph Azam, board chair of the Afghan-American Foundation, told The Hill.
“That’s a lot of people. But the reality is that the number we’ve left behind is far greater,” he added.
Fears that the U.S. would be little able to assist Afghans after the close of the evacuation have proved well founded.
The government, with U.S. Embassy functions being carried out by a Qatari protectorate within Afghanistan, has secured only a limited number of flights out of the country for those who already have U.S. ties: citizens, permanent residents and their families, and those who qualify for special immigrant visas after assisting the U.S. military.
“The demand signal for departures from Afghanistan, if I’m speaking honestly, probably outstrips our ability to absorb them into our country. And that is a fact that we have to grapple with on a daily basis,” Thomas West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, said at an event Tuesday to mark six months since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, stressing that the U.S. has the wherewithal to process only those with U.S. ties.
“It’s just a question of our absorptive capacity and demand from the ground. I’m in touch with Afghans on a daily basis who do fear the situation as well as coming to harm at the hands of the Taliban. And there are no easy answers to those questions,” he added.
Biden has opened the U.S. refugee program to Afghans, including those made vulnerable due to affiliations with the U.S. or by aiding U.S. democratization efforts or working with other nonprofits. But the White House hasn’t established a way for Afghans to apply within their country, meaning they can begin the yearslong process only once they manage to cross into a neighboring nation.
And a humanitarian parole program — which allows those abroad to seek a waiver of immigration laws in order to be admitted to the U.S. — has barely made a dent.
Of 43,000 applications submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) since July 1, fewer than 2,000 have been processed, and the vast majority have been denied. Only 170 have been given the green light to come to the U.S., while roughly 1,500 have been rejected.
It’s an unprecedented workload for USCIS, which normally receives just 2,000 humanitarian parole requests per year and has now quintupled the number of staff reviewing applications. But at $575 per filing, the U.S. is now sitting on $23 million in fees for yet-to-be processed applications.
The limited options and stalled progress are taking a toll on Afghans as well as on advocates seeking to assist them.
Azam said pleas from those within the country have only gotten more desperate as the economy collapses and food and electricity shortages grow more severe.
“I think they recognize the door may be closing or has already closed,” he said.
“It’s no longer ‘Here’s my case file.’ It’s like five paragraphs on how desperate my starving family is and they’re really trying not to appeal to people’s sense of what’s right based on documentation or promises or technicalities but truly are making pleas based on humanity. Literally ‘Please, save me; save my family.’”
While heartbreaking images of the evacuation have largely receded from the public consciousness, they are still fresh for those trying to aid Afghans.
“We’re reminded daily of a failure that is costing people’s lives,” said Chris Purdy, director of Veterans for American Ideals at Human Rights First.
The administration has told advocates it doesn’t expect to start assisting refugees who worked on various U.S. efforts until fiscal 2023, and even then, many Afghans will not qualify.
“I haven’t seen right now any reason to be hopeful that there will be any sort of viable refugee pathway from Afghanistan or countries around Afghanistan to the U.S. I don’t have any reason to be hopeful that the U.S. will significantly increase the number of people it is able to evacuate out of Afghanistan,” Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, told The Hill.
“If you’re a female judge in Afghanistan who was part of the U.S. government’s nation building over the last 20 years and you’re in hiding because the Taliban is trying to squash that particular form of democracy and equality, yeah, you’ll have a lot of challenges. I think it’s just going to be very difficult for you to get yourself referred to the U.S. refugee program, and even if you were, you wouldn’t have any assistance to get out of the country.”
Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy for Church World Service, which resettles refugees, said the U.S. has in the past established ways for those to apply for the refugee program from within their own country — something the U.S. did in Iraq. But even then, refugee hopefuls would still need to wait years.
“We have been very disappointed in the administration’s significant delays in processing Afghans who remain overseas in Afghanistan and in other countries to the United States,” Owen said, noting that the program already has a significant backlog.
“The refugee admissions program has never been one that is focused on speed or a lot of flexibility,” she added.
Those who have managed to get out of Afghanistan are still in precarious situations.
While the military-run evacuation took Afghans to designated bases for processing, charter flights hastily organized to help people escape landed in different countries all over the world, leaving them without clear pathways to the U.S.
They could still apply for humanitarian parole, the refugee program or other options, but they did not get access to on-site processing from USCIS officers like those who were evacuated by the U.S. military.
“There was a lot of rush to get people out. A lot of private actors — whose intentions I think we’ll have to reexamine — got people out by hook or by crook and just left them in some European city or wherever, right?” Azam said.
“It’s a failure that beget another failure. … It’s not like they’re being left in places that are very friendly. We’ve seen the anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiment for years now specifically targeting Afghans.”
A State Department official involved in resettlement and relocation efforts said those who escaped on charter flights — some of whom are housed alongside military evacuees in the same facility in the UAE — are in “limbo” but stressed the 2,800 who left in the official evacuation and are housed at lily pad sites are still expected to reach the U.S.
The official said the delay for the remaining evacuees at the sites was primarily due to security and background checks as well as health screenings and the need to make sure Afghans are fully vaccinated against a number of ailments before getting on a U.S.-bound flight. The government has committed to get new arrivals to the lily pad sites processed within 30 days.
Advocates, however, have pressed the administration to take a number of steps, working to speed up processing on all fronts and offer more direct services in Afghanistan for those unable to leave the country.
“The White House seems to think this problem will go away if they just don’t talk about it and they just let it happen behind the scenes and don’t put a lot of political capital or political energy into it. And it’s not going away,” Purdy said.
“It’s not sinking into them or they’re not willing to have the political courage to make the choices that will actually solve the problem,” Purdy added.
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