Thousands of Afghan refugees have been suffering from dire living conditions since they were evacuated from their country to the UAE, awaiting resettlement in the United States, nearly a year after Kabul fell to the Taliban.
Approximately 6,500 Afghans live in a residential complex on the outskirts of the capital, Abu Dhabi, which the UAE has agreed to convert into temporary housing for refugees.
According to previously undisclosed US State Department data shared with CBS News, they arrived last summer after the US-backed government fell.
Others were evacuated from Afghanistan last fall on chartered flights operated by non-governmental groups.
These Afghans, including families and individuals who cooperated with US forces, hope to obtain a special immigrant visa for the United States after fleeing for fear of Taliban reprisals because they helped the US war effort in the country.
Unlike the more than 70,000 Afghans who were directly evacuated and resettled by the US last year after some security scrutiny, those living in the UAE have been subjected to a slower review on a case-by-case basis by US officials that does not include guaranteed resettlement in the United States.
The US State Department told CBS that Afghans who were evacuated to the UAE before August 31, 2021, were granted permission to enter the United States if they passed certain medical and security checks.
But those who arrived after August 31, 2021, must prove they are eligible for a US immigration benefit such as a visa or refugee status.
The baby girl Fatima’s request to enter the United States on humanitarian grounds has been pending since her birth.
Next September, Fatima will turn one year old, and so will the emergency immigration application that was submitted to the US government on her behalf a week after her birth.
Government documents showed that Fatima’s parents were granted special permission to enter the United States last year because her father worked in the Afghan presidential palace before the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.
But the US has not yet decided on the application on behalf of Fatima, born just 16 days after her parents’ petitions were approved.
The 10-month wait put the family in a legal and emotional predicament and tested their faith in the United States and its promise to provide a haven for vulnerable Afghans.
“We are in a terrible situation,” said Fatima’s father, Muhammad, who was granted special permission to enter the United States on September 1, 2021.
He added, “the situation is difficult. It’s just like a prison.”
The family has been stuck in the UAE since their evacuation from Afghanistan in October 2021. They requested to change their names, citing concerns for their safety and the safety of their relatives in Afghanistan due to Mohammed’s work as a high-ranking official in the presidential palace.
Mohammed, his wife, and baby Fatima are among the thousands of Afghan evacuees who have been stranded in third countries for months — and in many cases for nearly a year — anxiously waiting to see whether the United States will agree to resettle them until nearly a year later. From the fall of Kabul and the American evacuations after the exit from Afghanistan.
The State Department said the United States reviewed the cases of all Afghans remaining in the humanitarian city.
It added that the United States continued to deal with some Afghans there, noting that 17,000 evacuees passed through the humanitarian city and that most of those who left were resettled in the United States.
“The United States is fully committed to supporting Afghans in Emirates Humanitarian City to reach their final destination,” the department said in a statement.
“We expect to welcome thousands of individuals to the United States in the near term as our commitment to our Afghan allies continues,” it said.
It is unclear how long the Emirati government will provide Afghans housing and other necessities.
The UAE government said in a statement to the US network, CBS, that it is working with the United States to “reset the evacuees promptly,” noting that the agreement to accommodate them was “temporarily.”
“The UAE remains committed to this ongoing cooperation with the United States and other international partners to ensure that evacuees can live in safety, security and dignity,” it added, saying that it provides housing, food, health services, counselling and education for Afghans.
Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, 2021, and the last US military aircraft left the country shortly before midnight on August 31. The Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country sparked a humanitarian crisis, displacing millions of Afghans.
Hundreds of thousands have crossed the border into neighbouring Pakistan, including unregistered refugees living in makeshift shelters who told CBS about their plight in June.
At a US military base in Kosovo, Afghan evacuees who were subjected to a rigorous screening told CBS they felt like “prisoners.”
For Mohammed, the former presidential palace official, the wait has become unbearable, saying that his family despairs when he sees others leave the humanitarian city.
He said the situation was exacerbated by not being allowed to leave the humanitarian city, adding: “We are in the room day and night.” Muhammad indicated that the indefinite extended stay is detrimental to his family’s mental health.
Elizabeth Reiser Murphy, a legal aid attorney representing Muhammad’s family, said Fatima’s humanitarian parole application should prioritize USCIS given her age and the agency’s approval of her parents’ petitions.
“We understand that USCIS has limited resources given the number of pending parole applications, but this situation represents an exceptional circumstance,” she said, adding: “It is unfair and inhumane to keep this family in limbo.”
Murphy noted that the family has American relatives in New York who are willing to welcome them.