The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has deteriorated economic and humanitarian conditions in the war-torn nation, prompting tens of thousands of people to cross into Pakistan seeking asylum and a resettled status abroad.
Pakistani officials say that since the Taliban regained power in Kabul last August more than 100,000 urban Afghans, mostly well-off and educated professionals, have arrived in the country on valid visas.
They are largely vulnerable Afghans seeking to move to the United States and other Western countries under refugee resettlement programs. Most of them have ended up in hotels, commercial guesthouses and apartment buildings in and around the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
The Afghan migrants are now facing multiple problems because of their extended stay in Pakistan. They allege delays in processing their resettlement applications by relevant Western embassies, a lack of help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Islamabad, and issues related to extending their Pakistani visas.
Some of the migrant families want the UNHCR to register them as refugees. They say they don't want to return to their native country, citing the Taliban's ban on girls' education and other restrictions on women.
"I have applied for a P-2 case. Generally, the process is going very, very slow," said one Afghan asylum-seeker. The man, who declined to provide his name for security reasons, says he is a member of the Hazara Shi'ite minority community, which has been repeatedly attacked by the Islamic State terrorist group in Afghanistan.
"We are waiting for an email either from the RSC (Resettlement Support Center) or from the U.S. Embassy," the man said.
"My son and my daughter-in-law are serving American army forces, which is a great threat," he said, noting he himself was an employee of a foreign media group's office in Kabul.
Educated Afghans and minorities flee
The United States' Priority 2, or P-2, program is meant to help relocate at-risk Afghans such as journalists and rights activists who are otherwise ineligible for a decade-old U.S. special immigrant visa program open to interpreters and others who worked with American troops in Afghanistan.
Islamic State has stepped up attacks against Hazara schools and places of worship since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan nearly nine months ago. The violence has killed scores people over the past few weeks alone.
Up to 10% of Afghanistan's estimated 40 million people are Hazara. The community is considered the most persecuted group and is discriminated against by many in the Sunni-majority country.
Fatima Sadaat is also waiting to hear about her P-2 visa application. The young female Afghan asylum-seeker tells VOA she used to work as a news presenter at one of Afghanistan's TV stations but lost her job after the Taliban captured the country.
Sadaat was invited to attend a seminar in Pakistan several months ago to discuss issues facing women under Afghanistan's new Islamist rulers.
"I used to broadcast anti-Taliban news and I knew sooner or later they would target me and possibly kill me for my work. That's why I decided against going back to Afghanistan," she said.
Sadaat urged Pakistani authorities to allow her and other Afghans to live comfortably in the country by relaxing visa restrictions and demanded Western embassies speedily address their resettlement requests.
"I can understand the world attention has shifted on Ukraine. But I hope the issue of Afghanistan is not forgotten in the process because security and human rights conditions in my country have even worsened after the Taliban takeover."
Pakistan, which already hosts at least 3 million Afghans, both refugees and illegal economic migrants, announced last year that it would not accept new refugees from Afghanistan and tightened border controls to block illegal entrants after the Taliban takeover.
Islamabad's ambassador to Kabul, Mansoor Ahmed Khan, told VOA that every day the mission is issuing 700 to 1,000 multiple entry visas to Afghans intending to travel to Islamabad for business reasons, for medical treatment and for visa interviews in American and Canadian embassies, as well as other Western embassies.
"We are issuing visas to Afghans more liberally than any other neighboring country or any other country in the world. We are doing so to help address Afghans' humanitarian concerns," Khan said.
"But if they (Afghans) want their status to be converted into a refugee status, that will not happen nor will we allow it," he stressed. "We simply don't want an increase in refugees."
The exodus has allegedly encouraged corruption and bribes both in Kabul and Islamabad as Afghans seek to secure or extend Pakistani visas.
Many asylum-seekers admit they prefer to pay bribes to get their visas renewed in Pakistan because they don't want to go back to Afghanistan. The say the trip would be more costly and it would expose them to questions from the Taliban, who have been accused of blocking the departure of educated and skilled Afghans from the country.
Vulnerable Afghans who do not meet the P-2 criteria may be referred under the pre-existing Priority 1, or P-1, refugee program. However, U.S. officials say the application process in all cases can take 14 to 18 months or more.
Qaisar Khan Afridi, the UNHCR spokesperson in Islamabad, told VOA his office is working with local authorities to help address the challenges facing the Afghan community.
"We are currently discussing with the government of Pakistan the way forward on registration and documentation of asylum-seekers," Afridi said. "There might be therefore delays in the process, which we systematically convey through our communication with communities."
Afridi explained that his organization operates "hotlines and dedicated email accounts" to respond to Afghans "facing serious risks and/or having vulnerabilities" that require support from UNHCR or its partners.
He stressed, however, not every Afghan individual or family may qualify for resettlement in a third country because the program is reserved for refugees "with significant protection needs and vulnerabilities."
"Some countries have announced opportunities for Afghan nationals who have worked or been affiliated with those countries to apply for permission to travel to those countries," Afridi said.
"These programs are established by those countries and UNHCR does not refer people to the programs or process applications," he said in response to allegations his office was not providing timely and adequate assistance to Afghan asylum-seekers.
The last U.S.-led foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2021, ending nearly two decades of war with the Taliban.
Although Washington and its allies evacuated more than 124,000 at-risk people from Kabul after the Taliban takeover, tens of thousands of other vulnerable Afghans who were left behind are struggling to find a pathway to safety.
Pakistan also helped the U.S. and other Western countries to evacuate thousands of at-risk Afghans for their onward journey to the country of their resettlement. Last month, a group of about 300 Afghans was flown out of Pakistan to Germany while thousands more who worked for German forces in Afghanistan remain behind, said officials in Islamabad.
The Taliban's ban on girls' education has added to the problems of stranded Afghan families as their children are still unable to resume classes.
Shahpour Yousaf, a medical doctor, left Afghanistan with his family three months ago and has applied for a P-1 case at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. He said he had missed the U.S.-run evacuation flights out of Kabul in August because the chaotic situation at the time prevented them from reaching the city airport.
Yousaf, a father of three, said he was heading the drug demand reduction national program at the Afghan health ministry and was running partnership projects with the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
"There is no delay from the U.S. side but the UNHCR is taking time to process our case. We request the UNHCR to speed up our application process because our Pakistani visas will soon expire and we may face legal issues here," said the Afghan doctor.
Yousaf explained that before leaving Afghanistan, he sold his vehicle and is using that money to pay for the rent and other expenses. His wife is also a doctor and they have two sons and a 10-year-old daughter. One of his sons graduated from a law college and the other was studying at a medical university in Kabul.
"My elder son is jobless right now. My younger son nor my daughter can resume education because neither one have enough money to fund it nor our current status in Pakistan allows them to attend a local institution."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this report misspelled Shahpour Yousaf's first name. VOA regrets the error.