Inside a large building that was once used as a commercial guesthouse for foreign visitors in Kabul are numerous rooms occupied by families and individuals who are not allowed to go outside or disclose their exact location to anyone.
Brought from different parts of Afghanistan, the residents are hosted in the facility before their flights to a third country where they will be processed for final relocation to the United States.
Nearly two years after the Taliban’s return to power, the U.S. has continued evacuating Afghans under special immigration and refugee admission programs despite having no consular or diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.
Aware of the ongoing relocation flights, Taliban authorities have not impeded the program so far despite widespread allegations that the group targets Afghans who worked for the previous U.S.-backed Afghan government.
Through chartered flights, the U.S. government has relocated from Afghanistan thousands of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, unaccompanied children, refugees and Afghans who qualify under what is known as a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program. Special immigrant visas are reserved for those who worked for U.S. entities and programs in Afghanistan before the Taliban seized power.
More than 90,000 Afghans have been resettled across the United States over the past 20 months, according to the State Department.
More than 11,000 SIVs were issued to Afghans between October 2021 and September 2022, according to official figures.
This year, U.S. President Joe Biden has requested that Congress approve 20,000 additional Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who helped the U.S. government.
At least 2,980 Afghans came through the refugee admission program from October 2022 to February 2023.
The U.S. government plans to admit 125,000 refugees globally this year, but the State Department said it could not say how many of them would be Afghans.
Three processing locations
Before arriving in the United States, the immigrants and refugees undergo security and immigration screenings at processing facilities in third countries.
“The Department’s principal processing location for relocated Afghans is Camp As Sayliyah in Doha, Qatar. It is also currently processing Afghans for resettlement to the United States in Albania and Kosovo,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA via email.
During two weeks of a chaotic evacuation from Kabul in August 2021, U.S. military planes flew about 124,000 individuals out of Afghanistan.
Several thousand Afghans also boarded private flights to the United Arab Emirates, where they have remained at a facility called Emirates Humanitarian City in hopes of resettling in the U.S., Canada or a European country.
“The U.S. government is engaged in case processing for Afghans at the Emirates Humanitarian City,” the spokesperson said, adding that the United States was not involved in the management of the facility where evacuees have protested over resettlement uncertainty.
Waiting for his departure flight from Kabul, one former U.S. contractor who did not want to be named for security reasons said that his family of five would be taken to Albania sometime in the next two weeks.
“I don’t know how long we will remain in Albania, but I hope it will not be too long,” he told VOA.
In addition to SIVs and refugees, the United States has admitted thousands of Afghans under a temporary humanitarian parole program.
The 18-month program offered in March 2022 is set to expire this September, while a proposed bill called the Afghan Adjustment Act, which was drafted by lawmakers last year to create a legal pathway for the permanent settlement of Afghan parolees, has not yet received bipartisan approval.
“Without the Afghan Adjustment Act, Afghans still either have to apply for permanent residency through the Special Immigrant Visa program, which takes years, or through the complex and overwhelmingly backlogged U.S. asylum system,” Brian Zumhagen, a spokesperson for HIAS, a refugee support organization, told VOA.
The act can provide “contingencies in the event that an evacuee’s parole expires before they receive a permanent status,” Zumhagen added.
On top of legal uncertainty, some Afghans face other social and economic challenges such as finding affordable housing and navigating systems for public benefits such as health insurance and food vouchers.
Answering to lawmakers last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he is “personally committed to keeping our promises to those who stood by us in Afghanistan.”
“The efficient processing and ultimate resettlement of these individuals continues apace and remains among the administration’s highest priorities,” said a State Department spokesperson.