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Afghan refugees kept in deplorable conditions at US facilities in Qatar

According to diplomatic cable obtained by MEE, refugees are refraining from eating and drinking in order to avoid using facilities at US air base in Qatar
A US soldier distributes food to Afghan citizens on 16 August 2021, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
A US soldier distributes food to Afghan citizens on 16 August 2021, at al-Udeid air base, Qatar (AFP/US Central Command Public Affairs)

Staff at the US embassy in Kabul have launched a scathing attack over the treatment of Afghan refugees at American-run facilities in Qatar, according to a State Department diplomatic cable obtained by Middle East Eye.

According to the cable, staff members lamented about the way Afghan refugees were being treated at a US air base in Qatar, stating "prisoners are treated a hundred times better than us". 

On Sunday, the US said it has evacuated 25,100 people since 14 August, with many transiting through al-Udeid air base.

According to the correspondence, refugees who arrived at the US air base, which is home to the headquarters of the US Central Command (Centcom) and US Air Force Central Command, were being kept in "un-airconditioned housing with too few lavatories - especially for women".

The staff also shared reports that many refugees were refraining from eating or drinking in order to avoid using the facilities.

Video footage obtained by multiple US outlets showed hundreds of Afghans crowded together in unsanitary conditions at a hangar at al-Udeid air base.

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The US began evacuating its citizens, diplomatic staff and Afghans who aided its mission in the country a day before the Taliban walked into the capital Kabul without firing a shot.

A State Department spokesperson told MEE it was "working closely with our Qatari and DoD partners to facilitate on-the-ground support and we are surging consular personnel there, in addition to expediting manifesting, to alleviate current conditions".

"We expect to be able to alleviate crowding as we bring online additional facilities in other countries, where we will be able to process those we have relocated from Kabul," the spokesperson said.

The Qatari embassy in Washington did not respond to MEE's request for comment by the time of publication.

Qatar has helped facilitate the transit of US citizens, embassy staff, and at-risk Afghans through Doha, and is hosting an American processing centre for people arriving from the war-wracked country as they search for a final destination.

According to a report released by Al Jazeera on Monday, Qatar has repurposed accommodation for footballers that will be attending the 2022 Fifa World Cup next year, and is hosting more than 500 Afghan refugees there.

"As soon as the next flight arrives, we would have 800 evacuees evacuated through this process. Most of them, I should say, are female students, or kids or family, in addition to journalists," Lolwah Rashid Mohammed al-Khater, a spokesperson for the Qatari foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera.

"For those, we have this accommodation we're in. Currently, it's almost maximum capacity, it hosts around 500 plus. And we're currently preparing another compound that can accommodate an even bigger number."

'Better to die under Taliban's bullet'

The cable sent to the State Department also shared concerns that local embassy staff in Afghanistan had with regards to Kabul airport, which has been swarmed by thousands of desperate Afghans attempting to flee the country.

Some personnel expressed "distrust in the US government" and a sense of betrayal, and said that Washington was not committed to facilitating the evacuation in a humane manner.

Some staff members said they were "nearly separated from their small children, collapsed under the crush of people, or received injuries requiring hospitalization".

'We are human beings and considered as animals and abused'

- Local staff member at US embassy in Kabul

"It would be better to die under the Taliban's bullet," than face the crowds again, one staff member said.

"We are human beings and considered as animals and abused..Happy to die here but with dignity and pride."

Violence at the Kabul airport reignited on Monday, however, with the German military reporting that clashes led to the death of one Afghan and left multiple others wounded.

A State Department spokesperson said the US has seen the "wrenching reports" of Afghans hurt or killed, and called on the Taliban authorities to ensure safe passage for those travelling to the airport.

"Our overriding priority remains to put as many people as possible on departing planes as quickly as possible. As we alleviate crowding inside the airport, we’ll be able to do the same outside," the spokesperson said.