WASHINGTON — With the US military now out of Afghanistan, the task of evacuating tens of thousands Afghan allies left behind for non-governmental organizations and international aid agencies — who say they aren’t able to tell them where to go, according to several groups who spoke to NBC News.
Kabul . airport has been the center for evacuations, but now that commercial flights have stopped, sights have shifted to Afghanistan’s land borders. But the odds that Afghans will reach one of those borders without… Taliban interference, being allowed to enter a neighboring country and then resettled in the US are daunting.
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“My sense of the problem is that the borders are incredibly crowded. There is a lot of violence. Some are open to visa holders and some are not. Some have entered Pakistan. Not much,” said Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which helps refugees after they leave the country and seek legal assistance to settle in the US.
As a result of the confusion, many organizations are telling Afghan workers and others who want to evacuate to take shelter there until they have more information, according to three non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan.
“Right now we are telling them to find a safe place and stay there. We don’t know what’s happening at the border,” said Chris Purdy, project manager of the Veterans for American Ideals program at Human Rights First.
Reports on which limits can be safely crossed appear mixed. And the UN’s main refugee agency says there is so far no evidence of a large wave of refugees fleeing across land borders.
“We have not yet seen a large-scale flow of people from Afghanistan. We know that could change,” said Chris Boian, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR.
There was evidence that more Afghans were crossing the border into Iran and Pakistan, but it was unclear whether they were seeking asylum, he said.
According to UNHCR observers on the ground, several thousand Afghans have traveled across the heavily used Spin Boldak border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Bilal Askaryar, communications director of Welcome With Dignity, a coalition of immigrant and refugee advocacy groups, said there are reports that the Taliban are blocking Afghans on their way to land borders. While Afghans once wanted to prove their ties to the US for opportunities to board evacuation flights before the US military left, many are now told to hide or destroy those documents when they encounter the Taliban at checkpoints.
“They may now have a target on their own rather than a ticket out,” Askaryar said.
There is also growing frustration with the Biden administration for leaving behind an estimated tens of thousands of Afghan Special Interest Visa holders and applicants who, along with their families, aided the two-decade US military effort in the country.
“The time of reproach will come“But right now we just need to get people out,” said a leader of a non-governmental organization working to evacuate Afghans, on condition of anonymity.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, on Monday called on Afghanistan’s neighbors to help host a potentially large number of refugees.
“Some Afghans will inevitably have to seek their safety across national borders. They need to be able to exercise their right to seek international protection and for that the borders must be kept open for them,” Grandi said. “The countries bordering Afghanistan that have been hosting refugees for decades need more support.”
Government spokesmen for neighboring Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan did not respond to requests for comment on whether they would welcome Afghan refugees.
The five countries met last week to discuss the situation, but they have so far made no commitments about the treatment of those fleeing the country. Iran and Pakistan have historically taken in millions of Afghan refugees over four decades, according to the UN, many of whom still live in those countries.
Afghanistan also shares a small, remote stretch of border with China, which was not part of the meeting. A Chinese government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The UN Security Council voted Thursday to set the Taliban’s minimum expectations, which include honoring their “declared commitments to ensure safe passage” for anyone attempting to leave.