More than 2,000 Afghan evacuees detained in UAE: Report End-shutdown

More than 2,000 Afghans who fled their country after the Taliban seized power are being held indefinitely in the United Arab Emirates, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.

An estimated 2,400 to 2,700 Afghans have been “arbitrarily detained” in a housing facility dubbed the “Emirates Humanitarian City” for more than 15 months, the organization said in its report, published on Tuesday. Having no idea what the future holds and being confined in a prison-like facility for months has had a serious impact on their physical and mental well-being.

“We are not criminals,” Ahmad, who lives at the facility and asked to be identified by a pseudonym because he feared for his safety, told HuffPost. “We had to leave because our lives were in danger and we should not be treated as prisoners.”

Most of the people who remain in detention have no status. They are not eligible for immigrant visas, are not considered refugees as the UAE is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and cannot claim asylum in a third country. But they are also often unaware of these complications, as they do not have access to legal assistance, according to the HRW report.

“We are completely in the dark about all of this,” Ahmad said. “We don’t know why some got flights and we didn’t. We have no idea what comes next, and we don’t know who to turn to for help.”

Some 12,000 Afghans evacuated they were initially brought to the facility after Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021. Some were flown in by US military aircraft as part of “Operation Allies Welcome,” and some US veterans. The US and non-governmental groups organized civilian chartered flights to bring more people to the United Arab Emirates after the airlift operation ended. Many of the evacuees fled Afghanistan because they feared they would be persecuted or killed for belonging to ethnic or religious minorities, LGBTQ people, journalists, activists, or judges.

people have repeated protested the slow and ambiguous process, including a lack of clarity about who is given priority for subsequent flights. The US has primarily focused on relocating those with ties to the US who had been airlifted under government operations.

As of September 2022, the United States had allowed entry to more than 88,000 Afghans, but thousands are still awaiting admission to the country due to pending statuses, including through the special immigrant visa and refugee admissions program, a type of visa issued to those with US military and diplomatic missions. Other countries, including Canada, Australia and Germany, have also taken some evacuees.

Evacuees remaining in the United Arab Emirates have been left to fend for themselves, often comforted with false reassurances.

“They have been promising us flights for months and nothing has happened yet,” Ahmad said.

Afghans demonstrate at an Afghan refugee camp in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, to protest their non-transfer to the United States on February 13, 2022.

NurPhoto via Getty Images

“Governments must not ignore the dire situation of these Afghans stranded in limbo in the United Arab Emirates,” Joey Shea, a United Arab Emirates researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the report. “The US government in particular, which coordinated the 2021 evacuations and with whom many evacuees worked before the Taliban took power, should immediately step in to provide support and protection for these asylum seekers.”

Mara Tekach, coordinator of the State Department’s Afghan relocation effort, saying in a letter to HRW that the US is still committed to “relocate and resettle all eligible Afghans,” including those “eligible Afghans” located at UAE facilities.

The Afghans are being held in apartment buildings located in an industrial district of Abu Dhabi that has been turned into a temporary housing center for refugees. The management of the facilities and the provision of essentials such as food, medical care and education are under the control of the government of the United Arab Emirates.

Families are provided with a small room, according to the HRW report, while single men are kept in separate hallways and in shared rooms with other single men.

Human Rights Watch spoke with 16 Afghan detainees, who complained about the poor state of the facilities, including the quality of the food and educational options for children.

The report also lists complaints about overcrowding, deteriorating infrastructure, and insect infestation. Movement is severely restricted. Only some necessary hospital visits and rare group purchases, under careful supervision, are allowed outside the complex. The building is also off-limits to outside visitors.

People with serious health conditions who need specialized care have had trouble getting care, according to the report. Many adults and children suffer from mental health problems such as depression, but do not receive enough psychosocial support.

“Some people even have suicidal thoughts,” Ahmad said. “Even children are depressed and don’t know what to do with their daily lives.” He said that her daughter, who cannot make new friends or try new activities, has lost all her motivation, she has become completely silent and has no interest in school.

“I am more concerned about my children and their future,” Ahmad said. “We can’t go back, and there’s no way forward either.”

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