Nick Paton Walsh, Masoud Popalzai.
Afghans who were promised a home in the United States after their country fell to the Taliban say they have waited so long for the US to process their applications that they are now being sent back to the enemy they fled.
A number of Afghans who worked with the US and were told they were eligible for resettlement there have been forcibly deported back to Afghanistan from Pakistan, where they fled to await processing following the Taliban takeover in 2021, CNN can reveal.
One man waiting for a US visa described being dropped at the Afghan border by Pakistani police this summer. “They did not hand us over to the (Taliban) Afghan border forces,” he said. “They just released us on the border and told us to go back to Afghanistan. It was me, my four kids and my wife deported together.” He is now living in hiding in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Another deported Afghan, also speaking from hiding in Kabul, said: “So this is very, very dangerous, and it is very tough… How many people have been killed, had been tortured, have been disappeared?” The man, a former employee of a US contractor, said the Taliban “will punish me, they will put me in jail. Maybe they will kill me? I’m sure they will.” He added: “Still, we believe that the USA will help us. We believe we didn’t lose our hope still.”
Both individuals spoke to CNN anonymously for their safety, and provided documentation showing a US visa case number being processed, and evidence of their presence in Pakistan.
Many Afghans fled the Taliban after the August 15, 2021 fall of Kabul to the hard-line group. More than 124,000 Afghans were airlifted out of the country in a huge US-led operation.
Yet, thousands also fled across the border to Pakistan, often with incomplete paperwork, following US guidance that they should wait in a third country for their visa applications to the US to be processed.
Nearly 90,000 Afghans have since been resettled in the US, according to State Department figures, but many others have been caught in the backlog of so-called Afghan Priority 2 (P-2) or Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) applications waiting to be processed.
Human rights groups say the most acute situation is faced by those in Pakistan, from where hundreds of Afghans have been deported in a crackdown against migrants following recent political instability.
At least two Afghans awaiting P-2 visas have been swept up in this crackdown, CNN has learned, and complain of Pakistani police persecution. Several others still residing in Pakistan told CNN about what they said was harassment by Pakistani police and the threat of deportation if they did not pay fines or bribes.
Pakistan’s Foreign and Interior Ministries have not responded to CNN’s request for comment on the claims.
At least 530 Afghans have been deported from Pakistan so far this year, according to Haseeb Aafaq, a spokesman for volunteer group the Afghanistan Immigrants Refugees Council. Aafaq said the figure came from his studies of local records but added it might be a low estimate as many Afghans were deported without documentation.
Aafaq added that the Pakistani authorities made no exceptions for pending US visa cases. “There is no differentiation. The authorities here do not even think about where you are from. If you are Afghan, you must be deported if your visa is not valid, whether you are SIV or P-2 or sponsorship cases.” He said many of those deported are P-2 cases, but he could not provide a precise number as many Afghans keep their P-2 status confidential out of fear for their safety.
Two young Afghan men have taken their own lives in Islamabad since June, both awaiting US P-2 visas, according to activists. Aafaq said one of them, aged 25, who died last week, had suffered “mental pressure and economic pressure and an unclear future.”
Aafaq said the US failure to open a Resettlement Support Center (RSC) in Pakistan meant the processing of cases there had partially stalled. “The RSC has not been activated yet, while in other countries, like Turkey or Tajikistan, people have gone to the US,” he said.
Afghans waiting in Pakistan have reported harassment by Pakistani police, including arrest and demands for money. One, who worked with the US military and asked not to be named for his safety, told CNN: “They were asking for a visa. There were a lot of policemen, they came into the house without clear information. And they took me out of (my) home and they just put (me) in the van. My kids, they were very much harassed. They were crying, they were asking for help.”
He also described how he once saved his American colleagues during a protest, and had commendation letters denoting his service. “I’m disappointed because (of) the way that I served the Americans in Afghanistan. I was expecting them to welcome me there sooner. It seems like I have no future at all.”
The US State Department told CNN in a statement that the Biden administration “continues to demonstrate its commitment to the brave Afghans” who worked with the US. It added that its “processing capacity in Pakistan remains limited, but (staff) are actively working to expand it.” The statement urged “Afghanistan’s neighbors” to “keep their borders open” and “uphold their obligations” when it comes to asylum seekers. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
Another Afghan, whom CNN is not naming for his safety, served the US in Afghanistan and is now in Pakistan with his wife and children. He described their wait for US help as a “bad dream.” His wife sobbed: “Going back to Afghanistan is a big risk and here we are dying, every moment. Staying in Pakistan is a gradual death.”