A senior United States diplomat apologised to thousands of Afghans stranded in the United Arab Emirates and promised to speed repatriation for some to the US, months after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last year.
While pledging to do all his government could, the diplomat who spoke to journalists on Friday after speaking to the Afghans, acknowledged still not being able to answer what would happen to some — and that the journalists, prosecutors and others who made up civil society in Afghanistan might never get US visas.
“I told them that I was really sorry it was taking so long and I was as frustrated as they were, frankly,” the senior US official said. “But I also asked for their understanding of how hard we’ve been working to get the systems going.”
The visit comes as the United States is still struggling with how to handle the tens of thousands who piled into planes in the hectic final days of the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August last year.
More than 74,000 Afghans are now living across the US after being housed on military bases for months, amid challenges in resolving immigration statuses and logistical challenges in finding affordable housing.
The challenges persist, and US officials said that as of January, of more than 40,000 Afghans who applied for a status called “humanitarian parole”, 930 were denied and just 160 were approved. The rest had yet to be processed.
State Department officials spoke on condition of anonymity to a group of journalists at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi on Friday, citing the “sensitive and ongoing natures of the issues discussed”.
The uncertainty over whether some would ever get to the US — and their fear that somehow they could end up back in Afghanistan — remains.
“The problem is nobody knows what’s going on,” said Ahmad Shah Mohibi, the founder of a group called Rise to Peace, which has been trying to help Afghans stuck there. “The US has a moral obligation” to help them, he said.
About 12,000 Afghans remain stuck in Abu Dhabi, with some 10,000 at Emirates Humanitarian City and another 2,000 at Tasameem Workers City in the capital, Mohibi said. They represent a cross-section of those who fled the Taliban’s lightning advance in August, including journalists, judges, prosecutors, LGBT rights activists and religious and ethnic minorities, he added.
Eight American citizens, as well as three permanent residents, also remain in the housing as they do not want to leave their family members who do not have US visas, Mohibi said. The US officials did not dispute the figures or the descriptions offered by Mohibi.
Perhaps more problematic, some 2,500 former soldiers now in Abu Dhabi identify themselves as belonging to so-called “Zero” Units, Mohibi said.
“Zero” Units — or “Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams” as the Americans called them — had been organised and run by the CIA in the long war against the Taliban. They conducted what Human Rights Watch described as “abusive” nighttime raids that involved extrajudicial killings and air strikes that sowed anger in Afghanistan.
However, the “Zero” Units served as a bulwark as American and allied forces mounted their chaotic evacuations from Kabul International Airport ahead of the final US withdrawal on August 30.
Evacuation flights had been going on until November, but then suddenly stopped, leaving the thousands stranded in Abu Dhabi without any clear route out. Then there are tens of thousands more still stuck in Afghanistan, whom the Taliban initially promised could leave but now may be changing their mind.
The senior official also said that two measles outbreaks among the refugees, concerns over coronavirus vaccinations and later, requirements for full medical examinations had slowed down the process of getting Afghans to the US.
Meanwhile, Emirati officials must deal with thousands of angry Afghans who already have held protests over the uncertainty.
At least two protests have broken out at Emirates Humanitarian City in recent months over Afghans being upset about being stuck. They have been asking for jobs to earn money to send back home and to move on, the senior official said.