WASHINGTON DC (Monitoring Desk): Nearly 40,000 Afghans are scattered at sites across the globe, stuck for an indeterminate amount of time as they await vetting by the U.S. after fleeing the country following a swift Taliban takeover.
The American military rushed some 124,000 people out of Kabul, creating bottlenecks at the so-called “lily pad” sites where evacuees were brought. Flights were even briefly suspended in Qatar as the facility reached capacity.
As the evacuation ended Tuesday, only 31,000 people had been processed into the U.S. — including roughly 20,000 Afghans — leaving tens of thousands in limbo elsewhere.
There are 16,000 Afgh-ans housed at bases under U.S. Central Command in the Middle East, while another 21,000 are spread across three countries in Europe, according to figures Thursday from the Department of Defense. Left unknown is how many escaped on charter flights who may also still seek to come to the U.S.
The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) managed to get roughly 130 of more than 500 clients out of Afghanistan in the chaotic exit, but few have made it onto U.S. soil.
“A little more than 100 were evacuated out of Afghanistan but only a couple dozen have arrived in the U.S. The rest are stuck in third countries, some in poor conditions. We have no idea how long they will languish. There isn’t any transparency or plan,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director for the group.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which President Biden has tasked with leading the resettlement efforts, has sent 300 personnel to the sites to assist the State Department and others with rigorous vetting of those seeking to make it to the U.S. So far, staff has been sent to Bahrain, Spain, Germany, Kuwait, Qatar, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates.
Their appointment was welcome news to many frustrated by a lack of communication from the State Department.
“They are still trying to figure out what to do with people across the world basically that have been strung out to the four corners of the earth,” said one source who sat in on a recent call with DHS.
“It was clear they were trying to come up with a solution.”
But it’s unclear how long the Afghans will be there.
“We’re concerned about the length of time people will be in these countries. There hasn’t been a real answer to that. We don’t want people staying in Qatar for five years,” the source said.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, called the facilities in Doha impressive but expressed concern about their long-term use to house families.
“Lily pads are a poetic way to describe military bases,” she said. “We’ve also been trying to better understand how long families will be there. I can only imagine the mental toll that takes.”
“I’ve experienced the sweltering heat so I’m worried by reports of families sitting in oppressive heat with not enough bathrooms and even rat infestations,” Vignarajah said.
One man who was evacuated to Qatar along with his wife has remained in the camp after the government offered a flight to him but not to her.
“The heat is just killing me and the bathroom situation is really bad,” he said. “They brought us to these camps, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Some advocates like IRAP have called for a 30-day maximum processing window, using the so-called parole process to temporarily waive the immigration requirements to allow those at the staging sites to enter the country and sort out their status on U.S. soil.
Without using parole, “those at-risk Afghans, already having suffered the trauma of the evacuation, could languish in unknown conditions in third countries for years because existing immigration processes take years, are riddled with errors, and are often too complex to successfully navigate without access to counsel,” IRAP wrote in its recommendations.
There is more pressure to get Afghans out of bases in Europe, where countries have given the U.S. a 10-day timeline to move evacuees.
U.S. European Command chief Gen. Tod Wolters told reporters Thursday he hopes to begin being able to move 2,500 evacuees off of bases in the coming days.
What is also unclear is how the U.S will address those who left the country on charter flights to a number of other countries and who are not staying in facilities overseen by the government.
“Wherever had visa-free travel for Afghans to go, these charter flights ended up going. That is a logistical nightmare. Where did these people end up? Where did they go? What are the legal processes to get them into the U.S.?” said the source familiar with the DHS call.
DHS told stakeholders that it planned to use existing immigration pathways for that population — a lengthy and complicated process that advocates fear could leave Afghans in other countries for years on end.
“You have people in Romania, Uganda and the Philippines and all over the place that flew out in these charters and no one knows who’s on those planes and their status,” the source said. “They are not under the control of the U.S. government right now; they’re under the mercy of whatever country they’re in.”