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Why can’t NGOs just buy Afghan evacuees a flight?
Nonprofits evacuating at-risk Afghans frequently get asked why they can’t just purchase plane tickets to safety for refugees. If the potential evacuee has a fiscal sponsor secured, family out of the country, or jobs abroad waiting for them, people naturally assume they have a clear path to evacuation. Unfortunately, the reality is much more complex. Despite having all the right pieces in place (and sometimes even a visa issued), it is still a significant challenge to evacuate individuals and families from Afghanistan. With all the roadblocks, each evacuation is truly a feat and the result of many different groups across the world coming together.
For those wondering why it’s so challenging to evacuate someone from Afghanistan, here’s a quick (and non-exhaustive) primer on the process.
BEFORE TRAVELING - Destinations, Paperwork & Funding
The process begins weeks before evacuees can even hope to move. Before anything else, they need to go through a basic vetting process. The individual needs to be identified by an NGO, their story verified, and their level of risk in Afghanistan assessed.
Evacuations start at the end. Even if an evacuee has secured funding and transportation out, nothing will happen without a destination country that has explicitly approved their arrival, either by issuing a visa or a special government agreement. Because of their weak passports and travel restrictions, Afghans legally cannot board planes to almost any destination without prior approval, which is difficult to impossible to attain.
Encouragingly, after the fall of Kabul, several countries agreed to accept and support Afghan refugees. There seemed to be worldwide support and sympathy for endangered Afghans, and many private groups rallied to save as many lives as possible by helping transport them to receptive locations.
However, the number of countries open to Afghan refugees dwindled stunningly quickly.
Even in countries ostensibly open to accepting at-risk Afghans, there were often stringent conditions on eligibility. Some countries would only consider women, children, Christians, Afghans with certain professions, or those who met other restrictive requirements. Often, countries would categorically reject evacuees with any ties to the former military. That meant that former Afghan National Security Forces (ANDSF) soldiers and members of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) were neglected more than any other group, despite being the highest risk of being murdered by the Taliban and arguably risking the most in support of a democratic and free Afghanistan.
Clearly, evacuations aren’t like regular travel and are not as easy as just buying a plane ticket. In almost all cases, Afghans can’t simply get on a plane and move to another country. Regional borders aren’t open for Afghans to relocate to countries unless they’ve obtained a visa or have a path to refugee status. If they try to fly without a visa, they will not be let on the plane at the airport and could be detained, placing them in more danger. If they are smuggled across borders without proper documentation, they could be arrested and fined, jailed, or deported. No one wants to put these families in a situation where they don’t have legal status and are in a worse position than when they started. This means evacuation organizations and families must do lots of paperwork in order to petition for legal status.
Once a possible destination has been found for an evacuee family, they need to get their documentation in order. Do they have passports, or were they stolen or destroyed? Can they reapply for critical identity documents through normal processes, or are they too high risk? If they’re already in a visa process, what stage are they at? Can they pay for and access a medical exam or COVID test, if required?
There are paperwork requirements for applying for a visa, getting a visa fully processed, applying for refugee status, entering the airport, boarding a plane, and getting resettled. The load is endless. And to complicate matters, it is often not clear what steps even need to be taken. Resources are scattered and often incomplete. Many people do not even know what type of visa they should be applying for or if their ties to a specific country might qualify them for a visa there. Even when resources are pulled together to illustrate the process (such as on #AfghanEvac or the Canadian government’s website), confusion abounds.
Even once a visa application has been successfully navigated, getting the visa processed and issued is often a long and arduous process. Horror stories abound about decade-long wait times, and at-risk Afghans getting killed while waiting for their visa to process. Theoretically, SIV applicants have been a priority for visa issuance and evacuation, but a report from the International Refugee Assistance Project published in May 2020 found that wait times for SIV cases were often over 4 years, although as US military withdrawal grew closer the State Department attempted to speed processing time up to 2 years.
Applicants to various visas around the world face similar frustrating delays. In the meantime, the challenges of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan haven’t made the waiting period any easier. Progress does occur for qualified applicants pursuing visas, but the process generally takes months and applicants must find a way to survive in the interim. For those in the process for visas to western countries, this includes deciding whether they feel the need to temporarily take refuge in neighboring countries like Pakistan or Iran. These in-between destinations present their own unique challenges as families struggle to pay for visas, transportation, and maintenance while they await their final destination visas. Living conditions are often poor, especially if they’ve made the choice to cross the border illegally and lack refugee status.
This is probably the easiest to understand, but it is still often one of the key factors that holds up evacuations. Due to international sanctions and donor wariness, anything dealing with Afghanistan requires extra scrutiny. While understandable, this can hold up money and result in visas expiring or transport options expiring before funding can be secured.
To counter this, donors need better information. If they are partnering with a reputable and responsible group, donors and investors do not need to worry that the money intended to help evacuees will reach the Taliban instead and that they might be held responsible for supporting terrorism. The US Department of Treasury and equivalent ministries globally have frequently issued sanction exceptions that permit money to be transferred for humanitarian purposes (read more about Treasury’s exceptions here).
However, this does not prevent donor exhaustion, which is another common barrier evacuees face. Many people worry that their money won’t make a difference in the turmoil of Afghanistan’s long-standing conflict. It is true that donors cannot save all vulnerable Afghans or help foster peace. But the bottom line is that these evacuations save life and there is no value that can be placed on a life. When donors set more realistic expectations for their contribution and see the impact of the work they are supporting, they are more inclined to stay engaged and continue saving lives.
Only after the destination is confirmed, paperwork is filled out, documents are obtained, and funding is secured can the actual process of moving families out of the country begin. Although this is what most people imagine when they think about the evacuation process, this stage takes up a very small proportion of the time and effort that goes into getting people to safety.
Evacuation organizations work with the evacuees on the ground to coordinate a physical way out, usually through a route that they have tested and believe to be safe. The two key pieces of this phase are securing transportation and navigating the difficult security situation so at-risk Afghans are not arrested or killed en route to the airport or border. Each family has a different risk profile, which means each family may need a different level of security or cover provided during transport.
This part is no easier than earlier phases. Even on relatively safe and tried routes, families always run the risk of being captured by the Taliban. Several times, the Taliban have stopped flights minutes before takeoff to remove targeted passengers. When using land routes, sometimes families get turned away, ostensibly for no reason. No matter how carefully prepared the mission is, there is always an element of fear and uncertainty.
THE WAY AHEAD
The process changes as elections occur and politicians change, economic crises pull countries to look inward, geopolitical events draw focus away, the Taliban crackdown, or anything else changes the way the political winds are blowing. Evacuation organizations understand that the environment is constantly changing and try to stay abreast of the dynamic requirements so evacuations are disrupted as little as possible. They kno, the work is worth the effort. Many evacuation groups are still working to help Afghans, and they will stay engaged as long as visas continue to be issued and donors continue to stay engaged.
ONE FINAL NOTE
The Afghan Digest is launching several Anatomy of a Crisis series over the next several weeks to provide more context on the evacuation and resettlement process. For more insight into the ever-evolving situation, keep an eye out for our upcoming series. In the meantime, we encourage you to review the following resources for evacuations.
Afghan Evacuation Coalition (#AfghanEvac): #AfghanEvac provides a comprehensive page of resources for Afghan refugees and evacuation groups engaged with the United States, which can be found here. They also have a variety of pages explaining evacuation processes, including helpful infographics, which can be found under the “Infographics” tab of their website. One especially helpful infographic can be found here.
Refugee Council USA: Refugee Council USA has also compiled comprehensive resources for Afghans at all stages of the evacuation process here. Although their site is primarily focused on Afghans with a pathway to the US, they have some international information as well.
Canadian Government: For all Afghans with connections to Canada, they can find information on the visa process here.
UK Government: The UK parliament has compiled information on the various pathways for Afghans to evacuate to the UK here.
PRO ASYL: PRO ASYL has a guide for Afghans who worked with the German government or NGOs here.
UNHCR: UNHCR, the foremost global agency for assisting refugees, provides resources on its programs both in and outside of Afghanistan here.
Project Anar: This group is focused on Afghans applying for humanitarian parole and have provided resources on that here.