US move to stop deportation of 25,000 Afghan workers

Published November 6, 2023
Afghan refugees gather around National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) vans for biometric verifications as they prepare to depart for Afghanistan, at a holding centre in Landi Kotal on Nov 1. — AFP
Afghan refugees gather around National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) vans for biometric verifications as they prepare to depart for Afghanistan, at a holding centre in Landi Kotal on Nov 1. — AFP

ISLAMABAD: The United States embassy has issued letters to over 25,000 Afghan nationals under the process of relocation to and resettlement in America and shared their names with authorities in Pakistan, diplomatic and other sources told Dawn.

However, these Afghan nationals face an uncertain future as Pakistan has raised objections over the list, according to a senior Interior Ministry official. At present, these Afghan nationals are living in Pakistan, awaiting resettlement in the US.

The crisis emerged when Pakistan started detaining illegal Afghan refugees in holding centres after the Nov 1 deadline for their voluntary departure to Afghanistan expired.

After the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul in 2021, the US government evacuated thousands of Afghans who had worked for them and feared retribution at the hands of the new government.

Reportedly, these Afg­han nationals also faced action during the ongoing purge against illegal foreign nationals, forcing the US officials to reach out to the Pakistani administration to address the issue.

The US officials believe these letters would serve for the Afghan nationals concerned as a guarantee to live in Pakistan without the fear of being arrested and subsequently deported.

“We are in close and constant contact with the Gover­nment of Pakistan on the safety of individuals in the US pipelines. Our key concern is the safety of vulnerable and at-risk individuals,” US embassy spokesman Jonathan Lalley told Dawn.

“It was in both countries’ interest to ensure the safe and efficient resettlement of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers.”

The US embassy has shared a list of Afghan nationals — who are under process for resettlement and relocation — with the Pakistan government, said Mr Lalley.

‘No legal value’

The sword of deportation might still hang over these Afghan nationals as the government has refused to attach any legal value to the letters issued by the US embassy.

A senior interior ministry official told Dawn that there was no agreement or understanding between the two sides that the letters to the over 25,000 individuals will have a legal validity.

The official also raised objections over the list, claiming that it also included those who were not Afghan nationals.

The list has many flaws as it only mentioned the names of individuals without providing the fathers’ names and addresses, the official added.

After an objection was raised over the missing information and inclusion of non-Afghans, the US embassy promised to provide an updated list, according to the ministry official.

The US embassy spokesperson said the information was not provided “for privacy and security reasons”.

“[T]he United States shared only what was necessary to ensure that Afghans who were applying to resettle in the United States were not deported from Pakistan and were able to depart Pakistan…”

Delayed resettlement

Pakistan has also blamed US for delaying the resettlement process during the past two years.

Since 2021, there was ample time for the US to process the cases of these individuals for resettlement, the ministry official said, adding the US was again intending to “delay the matter further”.

There are indications that the process may take 18 months to two years, and in the meantime, these individuals will continue to stay in Pakistan.

“There are no guarantees that the individuals in the list will be given visas or approved for resettlement in a third country.”

The official also revealed that the list carries the names of more than 25,000 individuals who are only principal candidates.

Even if you assume a family size of four for each individual, the total will go well over 100,000, he remarked.

Mr Lalley said the US government is “actively exploring all possible options to expand our refugee and immigrant visa processing capacity in Pakistan”.

“Working together to increase our processing capacity is something we continue to actively discuss with the Government of Pakistan, including in Ambassador Blome and USAID Administrator [Samantha] Power’s conversations with Foreign Minister Jilani.”

He reiterated the call to establish a screening mechanism and added that a hotline had been set up with information available in English, Dari and Pashto for Afghan nationals to seek help and guidance.

The spokesperson added that even before Pakistan announced its deportation policy, the US was working with the government “to ensure the protection of Afghan refugees, asylum seekers, and those in the US resettlement pipeline”.

“We remain committed to processing Afghans eligible for immigration to or resettlement in the United States … We are monitoring the situation closely and will continue to raise these issues at all levels with the Pakistani government, in coordination with UNHCR and other like-minded countries”, he said.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2023

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