The Biden Administration Is Keeping Thousands of Afghans in Limbo Abroad

Human rights groups sued government agencies for information about Afghans stuck at processing sites while their applications to come to the U.S. are pending.

CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, QATAR - AUGUST 20:  In this handout image Afghan Special Immigrants walk through the in-processing building, August 20, 2021 at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar. Soldiers help process Special Immigration Applicants seeking relocation to the United States.  (Photo by Sgt. Jimmie Baker / U.S. Army via Getty Images)
Afghan immigrants walk through the in-processing building on Aug. 20, 2021, at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar. Photo: Sgt. Jimmie Baker/U.S. Army via Getty Images

Thousands of Afghans who fled their homes two years ago are stuck at processing sites in the Middle East and the Balkans that are “coordinated, facilitated, or under the control of the U.S. government” — yet the Biden administration refuses to disclose basic information about their status, according to human rights advocates who sued the administration last month.

As the U.S. and its allies airlifted people out of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, they helped set up what were supposed to be temporary processing sites in third countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kosovo. Two years later, thousands of Afghans are in effective detention at those sites, which are largely closed off to visitors, according to human rights lawyers, amid deteriorating conditions and with no updates about their refugee, humanitarian parole, or other pending applications for entry to the U.S.

“It’s extremely concerning that people have just been waiting in limbo for two years now, and it is extremely difficult to receive further information, because there is a denial of access to visitors,” Sadaf Doost, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, or CCR, told The Intercept. “That creates a situation where much of the information that we’re relying on depends on those who are able to provide a sneak peek of what’s going on in the camps.”

CCR and Muslim Advocates, another legal nonprofit, sued the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security on August 30 over the agencies’ failure to comply with Freedom of Information Act laws. Earlier this year, the groups had filed public records requests with each agency seeking to establish the exact number of Afghans awaiting resettlement to the U.S., as well as the terms of their confinement and the exact role played by the U.S. government in running the sites where they are being held. According to the lawsuit, the Departments of State and Homeland Security did not respond to the records requests at all. The Department of Defense, meanwhile, agreed to release some of the records but has so far failed to do so.

The lawsuit also raises humanitarian and human rights concerns at three of the processing sites: Camp Liya, in Kosovo, which is inside a U.S. Army base; Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar, which is on a former U.S. Army base; and Humanitarian City, in the UAE, which U.S. officials say is “solely” controlled by the Emirati government, though State Department representatives reportedly visit the camp twice a week.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on pending litigation, while a spokesperson for the State Department did not answer questions about the lawsuit or the status of Afghans awaiting resettlement at processing sites abroad. The Pentagon did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.

“There’s just no information as to how much longer these Afghan civilians have to wait.”

Advocates say that the Biden administration has a responsibility to provide an accounting of the conditions facing the Afghan evacuees — and the status of their applications — rather than forcing the public to rely on information that is leaked out of the camps in a piecemeal way. “There’s just no information as to how much longer these Afghan civilians have to wait,” Doost said. “And there’s no oversight, really, because of the lack of information.”

Mursel Sabir, a co-founder of the community organization Afghans Empowered, works with several groups supporting Afghan refugees that have also been trying to get information about the camps — and are frustrated with the lack of transparency by the U.S. government.

“They’ve been very quick to move on from the situation in Afghanistan,” she told The Intercept. As for the Afghans who are stuck at the processing sites, she said, “they’re at the hands and mercy of United States government and Western powers essentially, that are trying to pick who is loyal and who is worthy of coming to this country.”

Refugees who fled Afghanistan after the takeover of their country by the Taliban, gather at the International Humanitarian City (IHC) in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi, as they wait to be transferred to another destination, on August 28, 2021. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP) (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Refugees who fled Afghanistan after the takeover of their country by the Taliban gather at the Humanitarian City in Abu Dhabi as they wait to be transferred to another destination, on Aug. 28, 2021.

Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

“Like A Prison”

According to the lawsuit, family members, counsel, and media have been largely denied access to the camps, making it harder for advocates to assess conditions there. Recent human rights and media reports, however, indicate a growing humanitarian crisis, with evacuees facing human rights abuses including rape, medical neglect, and the denial of food and water. 

Human Rights Watch warned in a report published in March that at least 2,400 people had been held “in cramped, miserable conditions” for more than 15 months at “Emirates Humanitarian City,” a temporary site in Abu Dhabi. People who had been held at the camp described constraints on their freedom of movement, lack of access to refugee status determination processes, and inadequate education services for children. They also denounced overcrowding, decay of infrastructure, insect infestation, and deteriorating mental health conditions for many of those held there, according to the report.

One interviewee described the refugee facility as “exactly like a prison.”

At Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar, some evacuees have attempted suicide and staged hunger strikes, according to reporting in Middle East Eye. Kosovo’s Camp Liya has earned the nickname “little Guantánamo” because individuals held within its confines were told that if they left the premises their humanitarian parole applications would be disqualified, according to the lawsuit. “They are constructively confined in the camps,” Doost said.

It’s unclear what responsibility the U.S. government bears at each site, and the advocates have requested records concerning the agreements made between U.S. officials and the host governments.

The U.S. government is responsible for the delay in processing the evacuees’ resettlement, with homeland security officials effectively stonewalling the applications of many of those held in confinement abroad. More than 1.6 million people have left Afghanistan in the last two years, with U.S. officials coordinating the evacuation of some 124,000, including former officials, human rights advocates, and scores of individuals who had worked for the U.S. government and military.

A year after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security division charged with reviewing applications, had processed only 8,000 of the 66,000 humanitarian parole applications it had received from Afghan citizens, according to an investigation by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. It had approved only 123. Other resettlement avenues, including a special visa category known as SIV for Afghan nationals who worked for the U.S. government and military, have also been marred by uncertainty and delays.

The DHS spokesperson did not address questions about Afghans stuck abroad as they await resolution of their immigration applications. With regards to Afghans who have already arrived in the U.S., the spokesperson said that USCIS had approved 9,000 of the 24,000 SIV applications as well as 5,000 of 19,000 asylum applications.

Chris Godshall-Bennett, a staff attorney at Muslim Advocates, told The Intercept that while the U.S. government has failed to address most of the questions raised by advocates, the treatment of Afghan evacuees and lack of transparency about it are in line with other U.S. policies targeting predominantly Muslim populations, including the no-fly list and former President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.”

“It is unsurprising, unfortunately, that a predominantly Muslim population ends up trapped in these sort of never-ending, unclear processing cycles, where nobody’s giving them any information,” he said.

The groups behind the lawsuit hope that it will force the U.S. to be transparent not only about the conditions at the sites, but also the steps the government is taking to process the Afghans’ applications for resettlement. “This information is desperately needed to facilitate a bigger conversation about how the U.S. government is treating these people, and what we owe to the Afghan people that have been displaced by what is at the end of the day our own actions.”

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