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Evacuating the “Easy” Cases: The Deadly Consequences of Bureaucratic Hell
The many (legal) steps to getting Afghans out of harm’s way—and the tragic stories that unfold while waiting.
After the Taliban took over in August 2021, NGOs and private citizens immediately stood up to assist Afghans in need. Money, time, and connections were generously donated as a shocked and concerned community worked around the clock to fulfill America and NATO’s promises to our Afghan allies. It was a race to get at-risk Afghans to safety before the Taliban located them or the humanitarian situation left them homeless, starving, or dead.
Even so, NGOs were able to save thousands of lives. However, the work is far from done. For evacuation groups, each success was followed by a slew of heartbreaking disappointments. Almost every path, no matter how encouraging it seemed at first, ended with a closed door. Many Afghan families remain in danger.
NGOs quickly learned that too often Afghans who had the right documentation, resettlement support, and funding still cannot be evacuated.
…Being an underage orphan with an SIV American citizen brother is not enough.
A 13-year-old orphan who witnessed his parents’ murder has been trying to reunite with his SIV American citizen brother who lives in the United States. Despite his big brother in the U.S. serving as his legal guardian, the minor has been stuck in Afghanistan, unable to be moved to safety. His travel documents have been stolen twice as weeks turned to months. Securing safe transport for a minor to the border poses significant challenges, and even if he makes it across the border to relative safety, the United States still has not approved his arrival.
…Trying to save the life of a baby who needs urgent kidney surgery is not enough.
A baby boy born after the Taliban takeover clung on to life for two months while waiting for life-saving kidney surgery. NGOs urgently attempted to secure passports for the baby and mother, organize a medical visa to Pakistan, and arrange transportation out of the country to a neonatal facility. In the meantime, NGOs tried to obtain the right antibiotics within Afghanistan for an emergency preliminary surgery in Kabul while the family’s evacuation was arranged as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, the preliminary surgery went well, and that night the baby stayed at the hospital to recover. His room was so cold he died of hypothermia before he could be evacuated.
…Risking your life to provide essential support to Allied forces for two decades is not enough.
Former members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANDSF) and the National Directorate of Security (NDS) were critical to the United States efforts in building democracy and progressing human rights in Afghanistan. As a result of their service, they are often at the highest risk of being arrested or killed by the Taliban. However, they are also the most difficult group to evacuate.
Many transit or final destination countries that were accepting refugees had stringent conditions, such as only accepting women and children. Former combatants and single male travelers are almost always strictly prohibited. For evacuation non-profits, it was devastating to watch these brave men and women be banned from countries after risking their lives to support US efforts.
Very few of this group were evacuated out of Afghanistan. Tragically, many were executed after the Taliban seized power. If SIV visas had been processed more quickly in the United States over the last decade or if transit countries would have allowed them to stay while visas were being processed, many lives could have been saved.
So what is enough to successfully evacuate a person?
It’s hard to say. It is clear now that some Afghans simply cannot be evacuated, such as almost all former members of the ANDSF and NDS.
If you do qualify for an SIV, the process is so long that it’s truly a struggle to survive. They cling to hope that the State Department will one day call them for one of their few, sporadic flights.
But there are other rays of hope: a small group of at-risk Afghans without obvious US visa prospects can still be moved and resettled successfully. They just need three pieces—a way out, funding, and a place to go—to fall into place at the same time. When the stars align, follow-on destinations can be secured for groups perceived as benign and at-risk, such as judges, doctors, musicians, athletes, human rights defenders, NGO leaders, and more.
However, without these three pieces perfectly in place, tragedies occur: orphans can’t reunite with family in the United States, a baby won’t get timely life-saving surgery, and former members of the ANDSF and NDS are left behind.
There are other, painful reasons why many cases often continue to stagnate. Sluggish bureaucratic processes, visa delays, and lack of funding remain major stumbling blocks. Despite the immense generosity of so many, there is still a need for more donors to help support Afghans who have a strong visa path. That’s what makes this situation all the more tragic: many high-risk families who are eligible for evacuation are simply stuck in bureaucratic hell.
Persistence and flexibility are critical to succeeding in this challenging environment. Fortunately, there are many determined evacuation and resettlement groups who continue the hard work – and they are saving lives every day.
Note: We removed the names and altered identifying details in each of these cases for safety reasons.