WASHINGTON – With the US military now out of Afghanistan, the task of evacuating tens of thousands of left-behind Afghan allies falls on non-governmental organizations and international aid groups – who say they are unable to tell them where to go next, according to several groups who spoke to NBC News.
Kabul airport has been the center of the evacuations, but with the cessation of commercial flights, all eyes have shifted to Afghanistan’s land borders. But the chances that Afghans will reach one of those borders without Taliban interference, be allowed entry into a neighboring country and then be resettled in the United States are daunting.
“My sense of the problem is that the borders are incredibly crowded. There is a lot of violence. Some are open to visa holders, others are not. Some have entered Pakistan. Many haven’t, ”said Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which helps refugees after they leave the country and seeks legal assistance to resettle in the United States.
Due to the confusion, many organizations are asking Afghan workers and others seeking to evacuate to shelter in place until they have more information, according to three non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan. .
“Right now we are telling them to find a safe place and stay there. We don’t know what’s going on at the border, ”said Chris Purdy, Veterans for American Ideals project manager at Human Rights First.
Reports on which borders can be crossed safely appear to be mixed. And the main UN refugee agency says there is no evidence so far that a significant wave of refugees is fleeing across land borders.
“We haven’t seen a massive influx of people out of Afghanistan. We know that could change, ”said Chris Boian, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.
There were indications that more Afghans were crossing the borders with Iran and Pakistan, but it was not clear whether they sought asylum, he said.
Several thousand more Afghans have crossed the busy Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossing of Spin Boldak, according to UNHCR observers on the ground, Boian said.
Bilal Askaryar, communications director of Welcome With Dignity, a coalition of immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations, said there had been reports that the Taliban were stopping Afghans on the land border route. While Afghans were once keen to prove their affiliation with the United States for any chances of boarding evacuation flights before the U.S. military left, many are now told to hide or destroy these documents. when they meet the Taliban at checkpoints.
“They can now have a target on them rather than an exit ticket,” Askaryar said.
There is also growing frustration with the Biden administration for leaving behind what is estimated to be tens of thousands of Afghan special interest visa holders and applicants who aided the US military effort. of two decades in the country, as well as their families.
“The time for recriminations will come, but for now we just need to get people out,” said an official of a non-governmental organization working on the evacuation of Afghans, speaking on condition of anonymity. .
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Monday called on countries neighboring Afghanistan to help absorb what could be large numbers of refugees.
“Some Afghans will inevitably have to seek security across the country’s borders. They must be able to exercise their right to seek international protection, and borders must be kept open to them for that purpose, ”said Grandi. “Afghanistan’s neighboring countries that have been hosting refugees for decades need more support.
Government spokespersons for neighboring Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan did not respond to requests for comment on the reception of Afghan refugees.
The five countries met last week to discuss the situation, but they have so far made no commitments on how those fleeing the country would be treated. Iran and Pakistan have historically hosted millions of Afghan refugees for four decades, according to the UN, many of whom still live in those countries.
Afghanistan also shares a small stretch of remote border with China, which was not part of the meeting. A Chinese government spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The UN Security Council voted Thursday to set the Taliban’s minimum expectations, including that they honor their “stated commitments to ensure safe passage” for all who attempt to leave.
Yasmine Salam contributed.