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'Our treatment is shocking': Red tape in US leaves Afghans in legal limbo

Afghans in the US are dealing with lack of resources as they work to stay in the country, while an immigration backlog triggers a bottleneck in the Middle East
Afghan refugees queue outside a distribution and donation center at Liberty Village on 2 December 2021 in Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Afghan refugees queue outside a distribution and donation center at Liberty Village on 2 December 2021 in Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Khalis Noori returned to Afghanistan last April to make his country a better place for all Afghans. He had just finished his graduate studies in the United Kingdom and had secured a job in his country's department of finance.

"I returned to Afghanistan, to Kabul, to just be a part of that promise that the western world gave to the youths and to the people of Afghanistan," Noori told MEE.

'I knew something had to be done about' [the resettlement of Afghans]

- Khalis Noori, resettlement organiser

But before he was even able to begin his job - he was still in the middle of settling all of the necessary paperwork - the Taliban had begun their takeover of the capital, Kabul.

Noori decided to leave the country, given his ties to western countries and to the western-backed government in Afghanistan, which quickly collapsed amid the US withdrawal.

Now in the US, he leads a team at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, where he works to assist other Afghans that have arrived in the country and are in need of financial, social and community support.

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But resources for the resettlement of Afghan refugees in the US are dwindling, leaving many recent arrivals without support. And there is a backlog of applications that has kept thousands of Afghans in limbo in other locations, such as the United Arab Emirates.

The lack of support has even caused some Afghans to resort to begging for money on the streets.

"As soon as I came to northern Virginia, then I found out something that was a little troubling about the resettlement of Afghans. I knew something had to be done about that," he said.

He is a part of an Afghan-led team that oversees a programme that has helped resettle 1,400 Afghans in the northern Virginia area while also providing food, financial assistance, and other services like housing, school enrollment, and trauma support.

But after a year of working to help other Afghans like himself, Noori says that there is not enough support and resources for them. Meanwhile, the US appears to be closing the door of entry for many other Afghans who are seeking safety and a new life in America.

Legal struggles in US

Neelab Yousafzai knows first-hand the struggle that Afghan refugees face in the US. Her family arrived as refugees in 2000, when the Taliban was previously in full control of the country.

Yousafzai, who is the founder and president of the Fresh Start Refugee Assistance Center, has been working for nearly a decade on assisting Afghan refugees around the world, including helping recent arrivals to the US with housing, financial support, literacy programmes, and jobs.

"As more and more families resettle within our community, I think we're seeing different kinds of struggles," Yousafzai told MEE.

During the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, tens of thousands of Afghans rushed to the airport in the hopes of leaving the country for the US, and also out of fear of the new Taliban government.

Since then, during the current phase of resettlement dubbed Operation Allies Welcome, the US has resettled roughly 86,000 Afghans, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security. Most of them left the country during the American withdrawal and were admitted with Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) or through the parole process.

The humanitarian parole authority is an immigration mechanism that bypasses the lengthier immigration or refugee processes.

'Afghans should have been treated in a better way, at least to the same level as Ukrainians. That has not been the case'

- Khalis Noori, resettlement organiser

Still, many of these Afghans are facing issues in obtaining a longer, more permanent residency. The parole allows for them to stay in the US for two years. However, during this time they need to go through the asylum process.

"The first one, the first and foremost, the alarming challenge, I would say is their legal status. Afghans that have arrived in the US are in legal limbo," Noori said.

"Now these people have two years of stay from the day they arrived into the country to apply for asylum. Applying for asylum may sound easy, but it's very, very difficult," Noori said.

The main issue is the cost of legal fees, including an attorney, which Noori said can sometimes run up to $10,000 - an amount many newly-arrived Afghans don't have. With the current backlog of immigration cases reaching an all-time high this year, it is also unclear whether their cases would be processed within the two-year stay they are given.

According to the American Immigration Council, individuals granted asylum by May 2022 had waited an average of 1,508 days, or roughly four years, for the outcome.

Yousafzai said that even before taking into account the massive amount of money needed for legal fees, some Afghans are not even aware that they need to apply for asylum.

"Most of the time they think that once they're here, it's kind of like done. And so that they are not thinking 'I need to apply for an asylum' unless they're talking to someone [with information]," Yousafzai told MEE.

"It's definitely a struggle that many of them are facing and that could potentially put them in a place where they might be sent back."

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Beginning on 1 October, the US will also no longer allow Afghans to gain entry into the country under the humanitarian parole authority.

The new phase, called Operation Enduring Welcome, will allow for three categories of Afghans to come to the US: immediate family members of US citizens; permanent residents and evacuees resettled over the past year; those who qualify for a special immigrant visa because of their assistance to the US military; and the "most vulnerable" refugee applicants.

The removal of parole poses concerns for many working on Afghan resettlement, as the visa and immigration process has so far remained sluggish. During the first 10 months of 2022, the US received fewer than 6,000 special immigrant visa holders and under 1,000 refugees from the country.

"To end parole, there has to be a clarification and alternative. What is the alternative to that? The explanation is not provided in the details I was looking for," Noori said.

"So that's of course not the news that people have wished for, especially that there are thousands of people still in UAE and other countries."

And restricting refugee applicants to the "most vulnerable" of them could force Afghans who fear their lives are in danger to remain in Afghanistan or undertake irregular routes to the West. 

Since July 2021, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has collected nearly $20m from 66,000 Afghan applications and approved just 123 of the less than 8,000 applications processed, according to a report from the news organisation Reveal.

The numbers come in stark contrast to the swift adjudication of Ukrainians fleeing Russia's invasion of their country. One hundred thousand Ukrainians have been resettled in the US in just five months, according to US media citing government data. While Afghans were asked to pay $575 per person, Ukrainians did not have to pay any fees under a different programme by USCIS, according to Reveal.

"We sympathise with the people of Ukraine, what happened there is of course horrendous. But when it comes to the treatment of Afghans and Ukrainians in the US, that is something that is a little shocking," Noori said.

"Afghans should have been treated in a better way, at least to the same level as Ukrainians. That has not been the case."

Middle East Eye reached out to the White House and Department of Homeland Security for comment on the fees and other hurdles Afghans face during the application process, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.

Stuck in UAE camp complex

The ongoing backlog has caused concern among resettlement groups that many Afghans will continue to remain stranded in third countries as they continue to wait for the US to process their applications.

During the official US evacuation from Afghanistan, a number of satellite locations in other countries was used to process evacuees, including Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

For months, thousands of Afghans, including families with young children, have been living in a camp complex known as the Emirates Humanitarian City, as they wait to hear back on the status of their applications. And there is no guarantee of US resettlement. 

In August, refugees staged a protest in the Emirati camp to raise awareness about the limbo that they are currently facing.

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A White House National Security Council spokesperson said the US has resettled more than 10,000 Afghans from the UAE and that it will continue to process eligible evacuees.

"The US Government, in partnership with the Government of the UAE, is working with the international community to identify resettlement options outside the United States for those individuals who are ultimately deemed ineligible for US resettlement, and these conversations are already producing results," a spokesperson told CBS News.

Earlier this month, Canada announced that it would accept 1,000 Afghans out of the roughly 5,000 that still remain in the UAE, and it is currently working to review which cases meet Ottawa's resettlement criteria.

One Afghan in the UAE told Reuters that he applied for Canadian resettlement because the processing of his family's US application has taken so long.

"Because of the delays, we decided to put our names on the list,” Mohammad, who only gave his first name, told Reuters, describing the conditions in the Emirati facility as similar to "jail".

The UAE, a close security partner of the US, agreed last year to temporarily house the Afghans evacuated from Kabul, but Abu Dhabi is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and typically does not accept refugees into its borders.

Noori says the issue of those stuck in the UAE is something that the US and other western countries who were involved in the invasion of Afghanistan must answer, as the Afghans seeking refuge are simply asking Washington and others to deliver the promise of "providing a safe environment to the Afghan people".

"These were the ideals that those people fought for and now they're being left behind, either in Afghanistan or the ones brought into the US facing legal limbo. The people in Qatar, UAE or other countries that are suffering inside safe-havens," Noori said.

"It is not those countries to blame or to ask questions of. These questions need to be asked of the western partners, whether it be Nato, the United Nations or the US government, the British government, or any others that have had involvement over the past 20 years in Afghanistan."

In order to help combat this backlog, resettlement workers like Noori and Yousafzai are hoping for the passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act, a bill submitted to US Congress that would expand the pathway for Afghans to receive permanent residency in the US.

"I think it will definitely make a huge difference, especially for the parolee Afghans, given the situation in Afghanistan," Yousafzai said.

"If you think about beyond the two years, if they have to go back, their lives are going to be in danger."

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