At least 7,000 Afghans who were evacuated to the United Arab Emirates after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last summer are still at Emirates Humanitarian City, a temporary refuge in Abu Dhabi, and none are sure whether they’ll be able to leave before departure programs are suspended in the coming weeks.
They have been waiting for months to be taken to their final destinations — mainly the United States, as many of them have a clear legal pathway or ties to the U.S. The prolonged uncertainty combined with ambiguity surrounding the process have given rise to anxieties and despair among those still in the Emirates.
U.S.-bound flights from Abu Dhabi under Operation Welcome Allies are still operating, but they are widely expected to stop as early as the end of July, leaving thousands of Afghans in a precarious situation with no clear route to the U.S.
The U.S. State Department would not specify to HuffPost when it planned to end its operation.
The International Organization for Migration, which has been helping Afghans in Abu Dhabi with special immigrant visas to make independent departures, is expected to end its operations by the end of August.
Emiratis welcomed and housed about 12,000 Afghans last summer; of them, an estimated 5,000 have moved to the U.S. A five-month hiatus due to a measles outbreak and other screening requirements slowed down the process. But only eight flights have taken place since the State Department’s operation resumed in late March, a rate that has alarmed Afghans who worry they won’t be able to leave before the program ends.
“We are working diligently to facilitate the relocation of all eligible individuals to the United States,” a State Department spokesperson told HuffPost. “The pace of scheduled flights has been adjusted so that potential travelers can complete all screening and vetting required by U.S. immigration law and medical examinations required by public health directives.”
But many of the remaining Afghans have not been screened and evaluated yet, meaning they are not being considered for flights leaving the UAE.
There is also a lack of clarity as to who is given priority for these flights. “It’s unknown who will be picked up on the next aircraft because some have cases with the U.S. and others don’t,” Hussain Jan Rasa, who has been living in the facility since October, told HuffPost.
Raha’s former employers in the U.S. helped him and his pregnant wife leave Afghanistan. Once they arrived in Abu Dhabi, they were initially promised that they would be relocated to the U.S. within 14 days. He had hoped to make it to the United States before his son was born, but he is now 6 months old.
After many broken promises, Raha is losing hope that his family will make it to the U.S. before the resettlement operation ends.
“My fear is that I will be left out of the planes and would be stuck here for years,” he said, noting that he can’t return to Afghanistan.
Raha said his contacts in the U.S. told him they’d submitted an application for humanitarian parole on behalf of his family in hopes that it would speed up their ability to leave the UAE.
However, the majority of Afghan parole applications are pending. Since July 2021, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has received more than 46,000 applications from Afghans hoping to come to the U.S. through the parole process. As of June 2, only 297 parole requests from Afghans had been approved by USCIS, and 4,246 requests had been rejected, CBS reported.
Raha said that he is grateful to the UAE government for the temporary accommodation, food and other necessities but that many Afghans at the Emirates Humanitarian City are suffering: Domestic violence, hostility, suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety are on the rise among frustrated Afghans.
“No matter when, we can mentally prepare ourselves if they give us a timeline,” he said, but he added, “We all live in complete uncertainty.
The majority of Afghans who were evacuated to UAE on U.S. military aircraft in August have already arrived in the U.S. However, Afghans who were brought to Abu Dhabi on private planes arranged by American veterans and nongovernmental organizations from August to October have faced a different fate.
“The State Department ultimately started treating [them] differently,” said Joseph Robert, a U.S. veteran and president of the Black Feather Foundation, which assisted in bringing thousands of people to Abu Dhabi and is now at the EHC facility to assist Afghans.
Robert and his team took many civilian-chartered flights to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul last August in an attempt to save the lives of the people they were tasked to find and bring to safety. But because of the chaos at the airport, he was unable to get the majority of them past the gate. Once on the ground, U.S. officials authorized their private aircraft to assist them in rescuing as many Afghans as possible. Robert said the State Department welcomed the help and gave his team a hangar to use.
Robert’s team ended up bringing thousands of people to the UAE, some of whom intended to board U.S. aircraft — including 1,000 who were already on the manifests for flights by the Department of Defense, 600 members of CIA-backed Afghan forces known as Zero Units and their families, and 500 members of Afghan security forces.
The U.S. airlift ended on Aug. 31, but private flights continued to transport people — most of whom had direct ties to the U.S., including Afghans at different stages of special immigrant Visas and priority visas — until the end of October. Some others had no ties to the United States, but they left Afghanistan because they were members of ethnic or religious minority groups, part of the LGBTQ+ community, journalists, activists or judges, and therefore had reason to fear for their lives.
All told, about 6,500 of the 12,000 Afghans flown to Abu Dhabi by the end of October were taken there on private charter flights rather than as part of a U.S. military evacuation mission.
“The expectation was that the State Department would continue to process those people, just as they did those that arrived on U.S. aircraft, [but] they stopped processing them. They had the position of not my aircraft, not my problem.” Robert said.
With rising worry that the U.S. would soon end its relocation operation from Abu Dhabi, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are ensuring that the remaining Afghans have a temporary shelter in the UAE and can explore other destinations, including Australia, Brazil and Canada.
“UAE has promised nobody will be forced to return to Afghanistan against their will,” Robert said. “[Although] people are still afraid of being deported.”
The NGOs are confused by the lack of clarity and communication over the process. It’s not clear who will be relocated and who will be left behind by the United States.
“We don’t know where to focus our efforts,” Robert said. “We don’t know what the United States is or is not going to take, and then we are put in the difficult position of negotiating for third country options.”
NGOs also do not have the negotiating leverage that the countries have. Besides, Afghans in Abu Dhabi do not have refugee status — and without a refugee status, the NGOs can’t take advantage of third country options through government-funded refugee programs.
“We have tried to meet with the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees because they have an office here, but they have elected not to participate in any way in this. So they will not offer refugee referrals,” Robert said. “We’ve only been able to negotiate private-sponsored refugee programs in other countries.”
Only a few hundred people have so far been relocated to other countries through private negotiations.
“The large-scale private-sponsorship programs that are capable of taking hundreds have not moved, though all the prep and groundwork has been completed. It is now in the hands of that country’s process,” Robert said.