Elena Alice Rossetti, WATCH/GSOC Team
Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor
Date December 10, 2023
Afghan Refugees Fleeing Afghanistan
Thousands of Afghans who worked with US forces in the country and requested a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to be admitted into the US, or at-risk individuals who applied for the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) remain trapped in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In March 2023, 210 principal SIV holders and 152,091 principal SIV applicants lived in Afghanistan, into hiding for fear of Taliban’s arrests and persecution. Approximately 25,000 Afghans waiting for US visa approval fled to Pakistan after the Taliban takeover and are still waiting there for vetting and departure procedures. Recent crackdowns on Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran worsened their chances of remaining in neighboring countries and increased deportation and persecution risks.
Afghan nationals who worked with the US military and government and members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in Afghanistan face detention and extrajudicial killings under the Taliban. Taliban de-facto authorities promised a general amnesty after they took power in 2021 but human rights organizations reported violations and retaliation. United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) collected data from August 2021 until June 2023 and registered in all 34 Afghan provinces “at least 800 human rights violations against former government officials and ANDSF members,” including 218 extrajudicial killings and 424 arbitrary arrests and detentions. In 2023 thousands of at-risk Afghans who applied for relocations in the US through SIV or USRAP programs are still living in Afghanistan, based on the US Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports. In March 2023, 210 principal SIV holders and 152,091 principal SIV applicants lived in Afghanistan with pending applications. These figures do not include family members: US Department of State officials estimated in April 2023 that “more than 840,000 principal and derivative SIV applicants remained in Afghanistan.” After the Taliban takeover, the Coordinator for Afghan Relocation Efforts (CARE) helped 8,950 SIV applicants leave the country till February 2023 but these efforts are precarious because they must overcome difficult internal freedom of movement and Taliban approval for flights.
Thousands of SIV and USRAP applicants who managed to leave Afghanistan find themselves trapped in Pakistan, waiting for their application processing. The complete review and acceptance might take more than two years; many SIV applicants did not succeed in registering through Pakistan’s online immigration system and resorted to paying for visas or permit extensions on the black market. They are now facing fines or expulsion. Pakistan authorities are imposing fees to Western allies who are overstaying in the country while waiting for immigration procedures. In November 2023 Pakistan started deporting in Afghanistan Afghan immigrants, including refugees, citing security reasons, impacting around one million undocumented Afghans and hundreds of thousands of refugees. To what extent these measures are directly impacting SIV applicants remains unclear: US officials are sending letters to SIV applicants and provided a list to the Pakistani government to identify 25,000 at-risk individuals waiting for relocation in the, US but Pakistan authorities initially rejected the list. On November 8, Pakistan caretaker Prime Minister Kakar announced that SIV applicants and refugees would not be deported and the crackdown would only concern illegal immigrants. US authorities and NGOs are appealing to Pakistan to respect refugees’ rights and are engaging in diplomatic contacts. Assistant Secretary Noyes visited Pakistan authorities and NGOs to “discuss shared efforts to protect vulnerable individuals and accelerate safe, efficient relocation and resettlement of Afghan refugees in the U.S. immigration pipeline.”
The US will almost certainly continue to relocate SIV applicants stuck in Afghanistan to third countries, where temporary facilities are in place such as Qatar, Kosovo, and Albania through charter flights. Evacuation efforts and flights from Kabul will very likely require Taliban acceptance, likely imposing on US officials and partners’ humanitarian organizations complex and sensitive planning and trusted underground networks. These conditionalities will almost certainly impede a speed increase in SIV applicants leaving Afghanistan. Alternative ground escape routes will very likely become less viable: Increased border checks and refoulement policies from Pakistan and Iran will almost certainly deprive SIV applicants and refugees of legal channels to exit Afghanistan and reach neighboring countries. Increased police and immigration officials’ presence near the Pakistan border will very likely disrupt smuggling routes and visa black markets, likely hindering any underground alternative to leave the country for SIV applicants. Border passage checks will likely increase the SIV and USRAP applicants trapped within Afghan borders, likely creating logistical complexities for arranging their safe departure through flights.
Pakistan will very likely continue forcing Afghan refugees to repatriate to Afghanistan, likely implementing raids and police checks. US appeals and Pakistan authorities' reassurance will likely limit direct attacks and repatriation of SIV applicants. It is unlikely that SIV applicants will completely be spared repatriation, since police raids and checks will likely hit Afghans instinctively, regardless of their legal status or SIV applicants’ conditions. It is unlikely that the SIV applicants’ list will reach every Pakistani police outpost, especially in remote areas near the borders, likely increasing deportation risks for these Afghans. There is a roughly even chance that Taliban authorities will get access to this list, likely exposing SIV applicants to unwanted attention. In the case of high-level figures, there is a roughly even chance that Taliban border militants will enhance border crossing checks to locate SIV applicants and arrest them since it is unlikely Taliban will respect the promised general amnesty.
SIV and USRAP applicants in Pakistan, even if not repatriated, will likely face increased insecurity, lack of basic services, and economic hardship. Fearing their expulsion they will likely remain in hiding, avoiding searching for a job. Pakistan's policy of requesting fee payments to exit the country or overstaying after the initial visa expiring date will very likely deprive many refugees of savings. They will unlikely gain access to medical facilities and schools for their children, likely increasing their isolation. Applicants’ contacts with US authorities or local NGOs will likely face obstacles since Pakistan authorities' strict policies on refugees will likely restrict refugee NGOs' reach and Afghan nationals' freedom of movement.
There is a roughly even chance that the mediatic spotlight on the Afghan refugee and SIV applicants' precarious and worsening situation will act as a wake-up call for US and NATO countries’ governments and charities. This will likely lead to increased public advocacy for Afghan refugees, likely improving public and private funding of relocation efforts. Enhancing private and public cooperation and simplifying steps in the application process, without skipping vetting, will likely shorten waiting time in “lily pads”, the temporary processing facilities located outside the USA, likely opening accommodation for the applicants actually strained in Pakistan. Other NATO governments such as England and Germany, will likely intensify their own efforts to secure safety for special immigrants and at-risk collaborators living in Pakistan. There is a roughly even chance the urgency of managing special immigrants’ relocation will favor cooperation and resource-sharing between NATO allies, likely enhancing effective coordination.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends US authorities involved in the SIV process, such as the CARE, the State Department, and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) continue reviewing steps of the Afghan SIVs issues to streamline the process and decrease waiting time in third-countries or US bases overseas. To reduce average SIV waiting time, these US agencies should focus on increasing staff and resources, as the OIG’s findings underline, and fostering interagency cooperation to avoid delays. Considering the refoulement policies that Pakistan is implementing, US agencies should prioritize SIV applicants trapped in Pakistan, compared to the ones already living in safer lily pads such as Albania. The CARE should focus on expediting the relocation of Afghan SIV applicants remaining in Afghanistan, and coordinating charter flights and safe locations through trusted underground contacts. US authorities should increase cooperation with US NGOs advocating for the resettlement of Afghan allies and relief NGOs working in third countries to devise a comprehensive approach that might integrate private resources, networks, and local contacts.
US authorities should continue asking Pakistan to avoid expelling SIV applicants and at-risk refugees through diplomatic channels and visits. Local US personnel should keep direct contact with SIV applicants to provide assistance and locate their whereabouts. US contacts should try to prepare a quick practical guide for SIV applicants, providing clear instructions on the local emergency contacts, on-site diplomatic structures, and security measures immigrants could take while waiting for resettlement. They should coordinate with other NATO countries' diplomatic missions on the ground managing immigrants’ evacuation to share information and resources. Considering England and Germany resumed flights to evacuate their special immigrants from Pakistan, allied countries could share procedures to devise best practices and, when possible, fully exploit resources such as facilities, transportation routes, and flights.
US groups advocating for SIV applicants’ resettlement such as the Association of Wartime Allies and #AfghanEvac, should foster public awareness to increase resources and volunteers that might help SIV through application procedures and required documentation to reduce application backlogs or refusal based on incomplete formalities. They should spread detailed information regarding how SIV applicants in Pakistan should behave in case of police checks and ensure they are receiving documentation from US authorities that can prove their SIV applicants' status. Volunteers should coordinate with US authorities to double-check that their contacts located in Pakistan are on the State Department list.
 The direct applicant is the person who directly requests a visa and can acquire it, thanks to specific personal requirements eg. the Afghan who worked with US armed forces and is at risk. Derivative applicants are family members that can access immigration benefits only through the direct applicant eg. spouse and children of the direct applicant.
 “INFORMATION BRIEF: Relocation and Resettlement Outcomes of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Holders”, AUD-MERO-23-21, Office of Inspector General (OIG), June 2023, https://www.stateoig.gov/uploads/report/report_pdf_file/aud-mero-23-21_0.pdf
 “Pakistan urged to identify, protect thousands of at-risk Afghans”, Reuters, October 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/pakistan-urged-identify-protect-thousands-at-risk-afghan-deportees-sources-2023-10-31/
 “Afghans Banned From 16 Provinces In Iran As Forced Exodus Continues”, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty; December 2023, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-afghans-banned-provinces/32713320.html
 “Taliban show conciliatory face at first Kabul news conference”, Reuters, August 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-show-conciliatory-face-first-kabul-news-conference-2021-08-17/
 “A barrier to securing peace: Human rights violations against former government officials and former armed force members in Afghanistan: 15 August 2021 – 30 June 2023”, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), August 2023, https://unama.unmissions.org/barrier-securing-peace-hr-violations-against-former-government-officials-former-armed-force-members
 “INFORMATION BRIEF: Relocation and Resettlement Outcomes of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Holders,” AUD-MERO-23-21, Office of Inspector General (OIG), June 2023, https://www.stateoig.gov/uploads/report/report_pdf_file/aud-mero-23-21_0.pdf
 “Evaluation of Adjustments to the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program From 2018 Through 2022,” AUD-MERO-23-23,Office of Inspector General (OIG), August 2023; https://www.stateoig.gov/uploads/report/report_pdf_file/aud-mero-23-23.pdf
 “INFORMATION BRIEF: Relocation and Resettlement Outcomes of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Holders,” AUD-MERO-23-21, Office of Inspector General (OIG), June 2023,
 “2023 HIGH-RISK LIST”, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), 2023, https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/spotlight/2023-High-Risk-List.pdf
 “Pakistan Firm on Exit Fee for Afghans Waiting for Asylum in West”, Voice of America, November 2023, https://www.voanews.com/a/afghans-face-abuses-in-pakistan-us-announces-hotline/7377445.html
 PAKISTAN BEGINS DEPORTING THOUSANDS OF AFGHAN REFUGEES AND ISRAELI AIRSTRIKE KILLS FOUR IN LEBANON, by Giorgia Cito, Kyle Dillon, Utsav Yadav
 IMMINENT WARNING: PAKISTAN OPENS NEW BORDER CROSSINGS, CONTINUES TO REMOVE UNDOCUMENTED AFGHANS, by Kyle Dillon, Flavie Curinier, Sebastien Chapel
 “Pakistan Rejects ‘Flawed’ US List of Potential Afghan Resettlers”, Voice of America, November 2023, https://www.voanews.com/a/pakistan-rejects-flawed-us-list-of-potential-afghan-resettlers/7337516.html
 “Pakistan says nearly 25,000 Afghans waiting for U.S. visas won’t be deported as part of clampdown”, PBS News, November 2023, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/pakistan-says-nearly-25000-afghans-waiting-for-u-s-visas-wont-be-deported-as-part-of-clampdown
 “Assistant Secretary Noyes Travels to Pakistan”, Media Note, US Department of State, December 2023,https://www.state.gov/assistant-secretary-noyes-travels-to-pakistan/
 Refoulement: forcibly returning refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they face persecution.