Many Afghan Refugees Are Still Without a Place to Call Home

Cramped conditions and snail-paced bureaucracy add to the misery of people forced to flee the Taliban’s takeover.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
An Afghan woman and her son walk through the National Conference Center.
An Afghan woman and her son walk through the National Conference Center.
An Afghan woman and her son walk through the National Conference Center, which has been temporarily redesigned to house Afghan nationals, in Leesburg, Virginia, on Aug. 11. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Thousands of people who fled the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan more than a year ago have yet to be resettled, and many are crammed into temporary housing while their kids go without school. Some refugees have been forced out of government-supported accommodations to make way for refugees from the war in Ukraine, and they cannot access their own bank accounts, which have been frozen by U.S. sanctions.

The collapse of the Afghan republic on Aug. 15, 2021, and the return to power of the terrorist-led Taliban sparked a chaotic evacuation by the United States and allies of people who feared retribution. Those fears were realized as the Taliban hunted down people who had worked with the Western-backed government and its security forces, civil society, and media. Many have been arbitrarily detained, tortured, killed, or forced to leave the country.

According to reports, more than 1 million Afghans have fled their country since the Taliban’s return. Many of the evacuees went to third countries to be processed for resettlement in the United States. In Britain, the government has been criticized for its lack of support for Afghan refugees, many of whom suffer deteriorating mental health amid rising domestic violence. They cannot work while their asylum applications are processed, and for many families, their children cannot go to school until they have been allocated housing. In Britain and Germany, Afghan refugees were forced to make way for people fleeing fighting in Ukraine. Lone women often face sexual harassment.

Thousands of people who fled the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan more than a year ago have yet to be resettled, and many are crammed into temporary housing while their kids go without school. Some refugees have been forced out of government-supported accommodations to make way for refugees from the war in Ukraine, and they cannot access their own bank accounts, which have been frozen by U.S. sanctions.

The collapse of the Afghan republic on Aug. 15, 2021, and the return to power of the terrorist-led Taliban sparked a chaotic evacuation by the United States and allies of people who feared retribution. Those fears were realized as the Taliban hunted down people who had worked with the Western-backed government and its security forces, civil society, and media. Many have been arbitrarily detained, tortured, killed, or forced to leave the country.

According to reports, more than 1 million Afghans have fled their country since the Taliban’s return. Many of the evacuees went to third countries to be processed for resettlement in the United States. In Britain, the government has been criticized for its lack of support for Afghan refugees, many of whom suffer deteriorating mental health amid rising domestic violence. They cannot work while their asylum applications are processed, and for many families, their children cannot go to school until they have been allocated housing. In Britain and Germany, Afghan refugees were forced to make way for people fleeing fighting in Ukraine. Lone women often face sexual harassment.

Horakhsh Amini just arrived in Canada after languishing for a year in a refugee camp in the United Arab Emirates, spending much of that time confined to one room with his wife and four young children, not even permitted to walk around the facility due, he said, to COVID-19 restrictions. “We never saw the sky,” he said. People literally went crazy “because of the uncertainty about how long they would be there.”

Amini, a doctor who was teaching surgery in a major hospital before the collapse of the republic, was entitled to resettlement in the United States after working as a medical translator with the U.S. military in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. He said on the rare occasions U.S. officials visited the camp, all any of them could tell him was: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You have to complete the SIV [special immigration visa] process, and it takes two or three years.’”

Protests became regular events, Amini said, as the thousands of people at the facility called for, as he put it, “freedom.” No outside visitors were permitted, and none of the residents could leave the center, called the Emirates Humanitarian City, apart from medical emergencies.

In a written statement, the UAE said Emirates Humanitarian City “has hosted over 17,000 evacuees since September 2021 and successfully resettled around 85%. The UAE continues to work with the US Embassy to process travelers and liaise with US counterparts in efforts to resettle the remaining evacuees in a timely manner as per the original agreement.” It provided no estimate for how much longer the refugees would be waiting for resettlement, adding: “We understand that there are frustrations and this has taken longer than intended to complete.”

His relief at escaping Taliban death threats soon evaporated, he said—until about a month ago, when he heard Canadian officials were interviewing people who wanted to resettle in Canada. Amini, 44, jumped at the chance, and within a week, he and his family were on a plane to Ottawa. “We have found a way to live again,” he said. This week, his three oldest children, all girls, started school. “It’s fall here, and the colors of the trees are beautiful. The kids love it,” he said.

Canada accepted around 1,000 people from the UAE facility at the request of the United States, and it is expected to take another 500 people who have ties to Canada, Reuters reported; more than 10,000 people from the camp have been relocated to the United States, the news service said. The figures could not be independently verified.

But not all refugees are processed equally. Those awaiting resettlement in the United States are processed largely while still in a third country; those who are resettled in Canada will be processed after they arrive in Canada. The time for processing is about the same for each country, according to sources in the humanitarian sector, but the waiting room is a whole lot different. Nevertheless, the U.S. immigration system has been plagued by staff shortages since policy changes introduced by the Trump administration, exacerbating the frustration of people waiting to be processed for resettlement out of interim housing.

A former Afghan government official, age 32, who has spent a year at the UAE camp and asked that he not be named to protect the safety of his family still in Afghanistan, said a total of 17,800 people were evacuated to the UAE between August and November last year. “Fifteen thousand have left for the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with 90 percent going to America,” he said. Of the 2,800 people still in the camp, many, like him, are former civil servants and include military personnel, judges, attorneys, and journalists.

U.S. and Emirati officials visited the camp this month in an effort to quell two days of protests, said the source, who has two degrees from Georgetown University and said he also worked with the U.S. government in Afghanistan for three years. A U.S. Embassy official made no promises about how much longer resettlement would take, though an Emirati official said the camp would be closed within three months.

“I’m not confident about these promises. If the U.S. charge d’affairs and the UAE official had both said three months, I would be 95 percent confident. But I’m worried that it is not going to happen,” the Afghan source said. The U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi could not be reached for comment.

With his relocation to Canada, Amini and his family have escaped the fate of many desperate people who fled the Taliban’s takeover, flown to countries they’d never visited, and billeted in hotels, often with large families squeezed into one room with a bathroom but no kitchen or other facilities. As the Western world agonizes over the Taliban’s violent treatment of women and girls, confined to their homes and essentially banned from secondary school, the children of many Afghan refugees are kept out of school by a tortuously slow bureaucracy that makes them feel unwanted and unwelcome. Until they are resettled, they cannot work, but U.S. sanctions on Afghanistan’s financial sector mean they cannot access their bank accounts and must rely on handouts.

Treatment of evacuees has varied widely. In sharp contrast to the alleged conditions in the UAE, Albania’s open-door policy enabled thousands of refugees from Afghanistan and other countries, including Pakistan, to live in comfortable seaside resorts while their applications for resettlement were processed, said aid worker Gonxhe Kandri. However, she said, costs—including flights, food, and medical care—were largely covered by American nongovernment organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy.

Many of the Afghans who arrived in Albania in 2021 have already resettled in the United States and Canada, she said. About 1,000 more who have arrived should be resettled in the United States by next June, she added.

Back in Emirates Humanitarian City, the 32-year-old Afghan sees no light at the end of the tunnel. “I was in the United States for five years. I studied for my B.A. and M.A. at Georgetown University, I worked with the Americans in Afghanistan for three years, and yet they have left me in prison for one year. Then I see the Taliban being flown around the world in private jets. It is difficult to bear.”

Update, Oct. 24, 2022: This story has been updated to include a statement from the government of the United Arab Emirates.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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