(Beirut) – Authorities in the United Arab Emirates have arbitrarily detained between 2,400 and 2,700 Afghans for over 15 months in the “Emirates Humanitarian City,” a humanitarian logistics hub in Abu Dhabi, Human Rights Watch said today. The UAE should urgently release those arbitrarily detained and provide access to fair and efficient processes for determining their status and protection needs.
In the weeks and months after the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2021, the United States, NATO, UAE, and other governments evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans to locations around the world. The UAE government took thousands of Afghans on private chartered flights to Abu Dhabi, and then transferred them to the Emirates Humanitarian City and Tasameem Workers City (TWC), another housing facility, pending onward movement. While many were later resettled in the US, Canada, and elsewhere, between 2,400 and 2,700 Afghans remain arbitrarily detained in the UAE as of early January 2023.
“Emirati authorities have kept thousands of Afghan asylum seekers locked up for over 15 months in cramped, miserable conditions with no hope of progress on their cases,” said Joey Shea, United Arab Emirates researcher at Human Rights Watch. “After enduring significant trauma fleeing Afghanistan, they are facing further trauma now, after spending well over a year in limbo in the UAE.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 Afghans detained in the Emirates Humanitarian City in October and November 2022, including 8 who previously worked at some point for US government-affiliated entities or programs in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch is withholding the names of interviewees to protect them from retaliation by the authorities.
Afghans interviewed reported constraints on their freedom of movement, lack of access to fair and effective refugee status determination and safe and legal pathways for onward movement, lack of adequate access to legal counsel, and inadequate education services for children. With no psychosocial support, many adults and children are suffering from depression and other mental health conditions. Living conditions have also deteriorated significantly, with detainees describing overcrowding, decay of infrastructure, and insect infestations.
“The camp is exactly like a prison,” one Afghan said. Another expressed extreme frustration at the indefinite nature of his detention saying, “the big problem is we don’t know our future and we don’t know our destination.”
The two housing facilities where the Afghans are detained are apartment complexes that the UAE agreed to convert into a makeshift, government-run refugee housing facility.
Several Afghans interviewed said that they are not allowed to freely leave the housing complex. They are permitted essential hospital visits under close supervision by security guards or minders from the camp. The only other occasion during which they were allowed to leave the camp, they said, was when authorities took a group to a shopping mall, but they were accompanied and supervised by guards throughout the visit.
Interviewees said that security guards are stationed at the camp gates and in every residential hall, and there are security cameras in every corridor. The camp authorities also tightly restrict visits to the complex, the residents said.
Most said they were not told why they were detained. One Afghan man said he was told by camp authorities that he needed a visa to the UAE if he wanted to leave the camp. None of the detainees interviewed reported having had access to legal counsel since their arrival. The UAE should ensure that Afghans have access to counsel and legal services, Human Rights Watch said.
Those interviewed said they were trying to apply for US resettlement but had not had fair and effective refugee status determination or other international protection procedures, or opportunities for onward movement. They said they had severely limited access to UAE or US consulate officials or other officials.
Human Right Watch wrote to the United Arab Emirates Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and the US Department of State seeking comment about the findings. The United Arab Emirates Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs have not responded. The Coordinator for Afghan Relocation Efforts (CARE) in the US Department of State responded in a letter to Human Rights Watch on March 14, 2023, stating that “the U.S. commitment to relocate and resettle all eligible Afghans is an enduring one. This includes those eligible Afghans located at the Emirates Humanitarian City (EHC) in the UAE.” The letter also states that “Emirati officials solely manage, control and operate the EHC.”
Immigration detention should be an exceptional measure of last resort, for the shortest period, and only if justified by a legitimate purpose. Children should never be detained for migration-related reasons. The continued detention of the Afghans is unnecessary and arbitrary, Human Rights Watch said.
Conditions in the camp have deteriorated since the Afghans first arrived, the people interviewed said. One woman said that at the beginning, “we were ok with the room. But now we have been here for 14 months, and life is very difficult … The same room is used as a dining room, living room and sleeping room and the washroom is inside the room.” A man said that the rooms were never cleaned and complained that his room was infested with bedbugs.
Residents described what they called a widespread mental health crisis among residents of the camp. “From the adults to the children, they are all suffering with depression, and this is getting worse the longer they stay in the camp,” one said.
Under international law and UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) guidance, asylum seekers and migrants should not be detained for administrative purposes unless it is necessary and proportional to achieve a legitimate aim, and only in the absence of viable alternatives, for the shortest possible time, based on individual assessments, subject to procedural safeguards, and in accordance with defined laws and limits. If these standards are not met, as in the case of Afghans detained by UAE authorities at Humanitarian City, the detention is arbitrary.
The UAE should immediately release Afghan evacuees, particularly detained children and their families. UAE authorities should ensure that Afghan evacuees all have access to fair and individualized processes for refugee status determination and protection needs, permit them to move freely and reside in the location of their choosing for the duration of their cases, and investigate human rights violations that have occurred in detention.
The US government should leverage its influence with UAE authorities to urge them to release detained Afghan evacuees. The US government, including US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and other relevant agencies, should also urgently expedite the processing of pending US asylum, humanitarian parole, or other visa applications by Afghans in the UAE.
“Governments should not ignore the shocking plight of these Afghans stranded in limbo in the UAE,” Shea said. “The US government in particular, which coordinated the 2021 evacuations and with whom many evacuees worked before the Taliban takeover, should immediately step up and intervene to provide support and protection for these asylum seekers.”
The Afghan evacuees interviewed spent between several days and several weeks in hiding in Kabul before being told by relatives, colleagues, employers, or other contacts with connections to American citizens to travel to Mazar-i-Sharif for evacuation. Once in Mazar-i-Sharif, they again spent between several days and several weeks in hiding before being informed by their contacts to board a charter flight out of Afghanistan. Many of those who spoke with Human Rights Watch did not know the destination of the flight until they were handed their ticket at the airport.
When they arrived in Abu Dhabi, Emirati officials transferred the Afghans to one of the two housing complexes by bus and some were escorted by police. “They transferred us by bus and there was a small police car escorting us, as if they were escorting prisoners,” one man said. TWC was eventually closed after the number of Afghans had dwindled significantly. Those remaining at TWC were transferred by Emirati authorities to Humanitarian City.
The people interviewed said that the morale inside the camps was initially high. “At the beginning, our situation was very good here because we had spent bad days in Afghanistan so finally at last, we were safe,” said one woman. Many believed that they would be in the Emirates for “two weeks to max one month and then transferred to USA,” she said. However, feelings of hope and optimism “went away after a few weeks.”
The Afghans interviewed had varying professional backgrounds: some worked for the National Directorate of Security, others held positions in various Afghan government ministries, including the Ministries of Education and of Women’s Affairs. Others held jobs in various capacities for various US entities in Afghanistan. Among those interviewed, one had worked as a security guard at the US embassy and another in the laundromat of an US airbase.
Arbitrary Detention and Visitor Restrictions
Detained Afghans described prison-like conditions, with no freedom of movement, and a 24-hour surveillance and security presence. They are unable to freely leave the complex. “The authorities want to say that [Humanitarian City] is friendly for migrants, but it really feels like a prison,” one person said.
When one of the Afghans tried to leave, camp security authorities stopped him at the gate and told him that he must apply for a visa to the UAE if he wants to freely leave the facility.
Those detained at Humanitarian City said they had not been able to receive visitors. “We are not allowed to go outside, and outsiders are not able to visit us,” said one Afghan. Residents must receive advance permission for any visitors by first submitting a visitation request along with documents to the camp reception staff. Those interviewed who had made a request said it was denied.
One man said he had a friend in Dubai who “was trying to visit me and bring me clothes” but “he wasn’t allowed.” His friend “called to the Crime Investigation Department and they said on the phone said that he is not allowed” to visit.
Another person said that “my cousin came to the camp and at the camp he asked permission to enter and visit me. They did not allow him to visit me and they wouldn’t allow him to give me clothes and food.” Instead, the camp authorities “turned him away.”
Those interviewed also said it was difficult to request and get meetings with US officials. They said they had to make the requests through Emirati officials and were only able to get a meeting after repeated requests, long waits, and multiple follow ups. Some said that they have not had any meetings or appointments with US or other government officials since they arrived.
Conditions at Humanitarian City
Residents at the camp are provided with one small room per family. Families are kept together in single rooms and in halls with other families; single men are kept in separate halls and in shared rooms with other single men.
“The big problem is that the rooms are very small, four by four meters, and the doors don’t have a lock,” one Afghan said. “I don’t have privacy and I don’t feel comfortable sleeping in my room.”
The lack of locks on the doors created concerns about the safety of women and girls, people interviewed said. One woman said that, “a woman doesn’t feel safe when the door is not locked at night.”
They also had concerns about the quality and type of food. “The food is bad, it is always served cold,” One man said. The food “is made with strong spices and people in Afghanistan are not used to these spices so everyone has stomach issues from the food.”
There is no specialized food available for those who have medical conditions. One man said he had developed diabetes while detained and that he is “supposed to control what I am eating but it’s not possible.”
Those interviewed also said they received little financial support from the UAE. Families said that they received two payments during the Eid holidays, a total of about 500 dirhams (US $136).
Some have apparently returned to Afghanistan because of the conditions. “My roommate wanted to go back to Afghanistan, and he returned,” one person said. “He was hopeless about being moved to another country, so he decided to go back.”
According to the letter from the US State Department received on March 14, “a small number of Afghans did return voluntarily to Afghanistan.”
Another said that “many people have returned back to Afghanistan; I know five guys who were staying in the same block as I was.”
Children detained at Humanitarian City have not had access to appropriate education since their arrival. One parent of three children ages 13, 15, and 16 said that his children are not attending school because no meaningful education is available for them.
The only educational offering is a class that includes art, basic English language instruction, and games for the children to play. Another parent said that that her children recently “lost interest and stopped going” to the class. “It is not professional so that is why the children are getting bored and not wanting to go,” she said.
Health Care and Psychosocial Support
Afghans said that they have access to medical care and that doctors and nurses are on site at Humanitarian City. Some residents said that they were satisfied with the health care that they have received since arrival, but others said they experienced difficulties with longer-term health needs, particularly those requiring specialized care.
“The health services have gotten worse, before they would take people to go to the hospital if they needed care, but now they will only take you to an outside hospital if you are in an emergency situation,” said one Afghan. Another said that “the medical services are very weak.”
In the event of a medical emergency, staff and security guards from the complex take Afghans to nearby hospitals, keeping them under supervision and immediately returning them to the camp when they are released.
On October 17, Sayed Yousef Halim, a former Afghan supreme court judge, died in the camp due to an apparent heart attack while he was praying. One person who knew him said that “he was alone and depressed. He was here for one year without his family.”
Most Afghans interviewed described what they called a mental health crisis in Humanitarian City. They said there was widespread and severe depression among both adults and children.
“Life is really difficult inside the camp,” one resident said. “People are depressed and they are not going outside of their rooms … In the beginning there were children’s voices and adult voices, but now no one leaves their rooms and everyone stays inside.” Residents said that the camp lacked proper mental health support services.
Another said that “stress and anxiety is very common among all the migrants. The children are depressed.”
Human Rights Watch learned of at least one suicide attempt at Humanitarian City. The person was taken to the hospital after the attempt, said a man with knowledge of the incident, but the person “is still suffering from mental health problems.” “The problems that made [them] do it are still there, and nothing has been done for those problems.”
There are no psychosocial support services available, those interviewed said. “There are lots of people who are suffering from mental problems, and they don’t get any support from anyone,” one man said. “They only get pills that help them sleep.”
The Asylum Situation
As of September 2022, the US government had admitted approximately 88,500 Afghans as part of “Operation Allies Welcome,” though thousands more remained stranded overseas. According to news reports, unlike the more than 70,000 Afghans directly evacuated and swiftly admitted to the US in 2021, many Afghans flown to the UAE after August 31, 2021, have faced slower, case-by-case US immigration reviews, with no guarantee of US admission or resettlement.
US government officials had indicated that Afghans who were evacuated to the UAE before August 31, 2021, were effectively guaranteed permission to enter the US if they passed medical and security checks, but those who arrived after that date were required to prove they qualify for a US visa or refugee status.
News reports have also indicated that the UAE may have agreed to temporarily host several thousand Afghan evacuees in the first place due to its close security partnership with the US. As of September 2022, the media reported, more than 10,000 Afghans had been relocated from the UAE to the US, and others were resettled elsewhere.
The US government announced a revised policy for Afghans (“Enduring Welcome”), effective in October, that would end most temporary relocations of Afghans to the US under humanitarian parole, to focus instead on pathways leading to “long-term durable status” such as family reunification, Special Immigration Visas, and priority referrals to the US Refugee Admissions Program. At that time at least 5,000 Afghans remained in the UAE’s Humanitarian City, and in September 2022 Canada reportedly agreed to resettle 1,500 of them following a US request.
However, some Afghan evacuees in the UAE reportedly have no pending asylum application and no pathway for onward movement to any other country, leaving them in legal limbo. The UAE itself is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have an asylum system, and other pathways to long-term residence for Afghans there are extremely limited. The Humanitarian City was envisaged as a temporary solution for the emergency transit of Afghans fleeing the country after the August 2021 Taliban takeover.
Afghans who arrive in the UAE and other countries intended as places of transit should be given access to timely refugee status determination and international protection procedures, including safe and dignified reception conditions, Human Rights Watch said.
The UAE’s Interior Ministry should release detained Afghan evacuees, ensure they all have access to fair and individualized processes for refugee status determination and protection needs, permit them to move freely and reside in the location of their choosing for the duration of their cases. The government should also investigate human rights violations that have occurred in Humanitarian City.
The UAE authorities should urgently identify and release children along with their family members, and provide safe alternatives to detention to which humanitarian agencies have regular access. They should also identify and release pregnant and nursing women in line with international guidelines on the detention of asylum seekers.
The US government should leverage its influence with UAE authorities to urge the UAE to release detained Afghan evacuees, ensure they all have access to fair and individualized processes for assessing their legal status and protection needs, permit them to move freely and reside in the location of their choosing for the duration of their cases, and investigate human rights violations that have occurred in Humanitarian City.
The US government, including the USCIS, and other relevant agencies, should also urgently expedite the processing of pending US asylum, humanitarian parole, or other visa applications by Afghans in the UAE. The US government should work with the UAE authorities to ensure Afghans eligible to apply for US resettlement programs for at-risk groups, are able to do so. Access to legal assistance should be made available where possible.
Resettlement countries should increase refugee resettlement places for Afghan asylum seekers in the UAE, and establish and maintain generous complementary pathways for safe, legal, and orderly migration of Afghan from the UAE for family reunification, education, and employment.
The UAE government should ensure that Afghan asylum seekers have access to adequate health care, including psychosocial support, Human Rights Watch said. Dedicated support and assistance should be available, and culturally, linguistically, and age-appropriate, including for people with disabilities, older people, children, and those with mental health conditions. Programming should also consider the mental health needs of new arrivals, including the trauma of forced flight and the specific hardships they may have faced before and after leaving Afghanistan.
While children remain at Humanitarian City, the United Arab Emirates should immediately ensure that they have access to quality, inclusive, and otherwise appropriate education that is integrated into the national education system. Education appropriate for children of all levels and ages – not just young children – should be made available for all Afghans in the complex, and while they are in the UAE after their release from detention. Language classes and other education should also be available to Afghan evacuees who are adults while they are in the UAE.