Thousands of at-risk Afghans who were promised a new life in the U.S. have been stranded in Pakistan for more than 18 months due to significant delays in visa processing. Now many are feeling betrayed as they’re running out of money and face deportation to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The U.S. established Priority 1 and Priority 2 (known as P1 and P2) referrals under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) in August 2021 amid the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the resurgence of the oppressive Taliban. These visas were meant to help Afghans who were in danger of retaliation from the Taliban because they had collaborated with U.S. government agencies and nongovernmental organizations but were ineligible for the traditional special immigrant visa, which was primarily granted to Afghan interpreters and translators.
However, applicants had to travel to a third country for their cases to be reviewed. As a result, thousands made their way to Pakistan, the nearest viable option, with hopes of being able to go to the U.S. in a matter of months.
“We sold all we had — our furniture, rugs and my jewelry — to get out of Afghanistan,” said Khadija, who is being identified with a pseudonym due to safety concerns.
Khadija’s husband was a driver for an American organization. He was left behind when his employer evacuated following the Taliban takeover. One day he received a call from someone claiming to be his employer, asking him to return the car and collect his last payment. He left but never returned. Khadija soon realized that the call was likely a trap set by the Taliban.
“I was almost convinced that my husband had been killed,” Khadija recalled. Her husband was released from Taliban captivity after 17 days, and she said the evidence of torture was clear on his body.
Khadija and her husband fled to Pakistan after they found out they were eligible for the P2 program.
But after nearly a year and a half of waiting, they still haven’t received any updates on their case. The uncertainty of their future weighs heavily on them as they struggle to survive in a foreign country with limited resources and little clarity on what will happen next.
Processing P1 and P2 referrals usually takes a designated resettlement support center (RSC) 12 to 18 months. However, Afghan applicants in Pakistan still haven’t received the preliminary interview necessary to begin the visa application process, primarily because there is no RSC in the country.
A State Department spokesperson told HuffPost that they are not yet able to process Afghans in Pakistan with Priority 1 and Priority 2 referrals. “Resettling eligible Afghans from Pakistan is a department priority, and we are exploring all options to enable USRAP processing,” the spokesperson said.
The State Department declined to provide any information regarding ongoing discussions between the two countries on the issue or the duration of the processing time. In contrast to the special immigrant visa program, there is limited public information and official statistics available regarding the P1 and P2 referrals.
The U.S. government has said it is unable to offer protection or assistance to P1 and P2 applicants while they are waiting for a decision on their refugee case.
There were 45,000 applications worldwide for P1 and P2 referrals as of July 2022, according to a report from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction that was released this year. Among these, 8,600 individuals with their families had left for Pakistan and were experiencing various difficulties.
The report shows that in the fiscal year 2022, the program managed to resettle a total of 1,618 Afghans, and in the ongoing fiscal year 2023, the number has reached 2,980 cases. However, all of these cases have been processed in countries other than Pakistan.
In February, a large group of Afghan applicants — frustrated by being in limbo for so long — protested in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
“When I moved the group over to Pakistan, I was told it would be like a few months, but now I’m being told it could be up to 24 months,” Meredith Festa, who assisted dozens of Afghans with P1 and P2 referrals move to Pakistan, told HuffPost. Festa was initially an animal rescuer. She runs Paws Unite People, a nonprofit that helps abused and neglected dogs and helped U.S. soldiers bring their dogs home with them during evacuation.
Festa said the U.S. should inform applicants where they could go to have their cases processed if the government isn’t able to process them in Pakistan. Applicants can’t decide to return to Afghanistan because that would signal to the U.S. that they didn’t feel like they were in danger, she said.
Afghans must maintain their Pakistani visas at all times or risk being deported; it takes money to get a visa and additional money to renew it every six months.
The thousands of people stranded in Pakistan are in a vulnerable position. In addition to not knowing if or when they may be granted entry to the U.S., many are struggling financially and have limited access to essential services, such as health care and education.
“We’re all out of money, including me,” Festa said. “And they haven’t even had their cases started yet.”
Since August 2021, Festa has raised about $1.4 million that has been spent on 169 Afghans in Pakistan with P1 and P2 cases. This money has covered expenses such as obtaining national electronic IDs, passports and Pakistan visas; paying for housing, food, clothing, online classes and English lessons; and covering fines to release them from jail to avoid deportation.
“If I don’t come up with $12,000 in the next week, 34 people whose visas are going to expire will be in Pakistan illegally,” she said. “I also have $9,000 in bills this month for other expenses.”
Afghans on tourist visas are not permitted to legally lease an apartment in Pakistan, and they instead have to spend money on an agent who can help them, according to Festa. Refugees are not allowed to work, she said, and kids can’t go to school.
“What about all the Afghans that don’t have someone to help them?” she said. “What if they have a medical emergency?”
Festa said many of the P1 and P2 applicants are women who would be in danger under the Taliban and didn’t qualify for special immigrant visas.
“All of the women and girls who fled Afghanistan to Pakistan to get their P1 visas processed because they wanted to work and go to school still can’t work and go to school,” she said.
Khadija and her husband haven’t had any assistance from their American employer or humanitarian groups and are using up all their savings to make ends meet. Khadija’s husband is working as an unauthorized day laborer but doesn’t make enough to pay for their costs in Pakistan. Three months ago, they paid a significant sum of money to extend their expired visa for another six months, but now they lack the funds to do so again. If they can’t renew their visas, they could end up in jail or get deported.
“We cannot go back to Afghanistan,” she said. “This time the Taliban will kill my husband.”
Khadija said she, her husband and 7-year-old child are all experiencing severe depression. She expresses particular concern for her child, who is unable to attend school and has been confined to their home all day.
“American left us behind in Afghanistan and has continued to ignore us ever since,” Khadija said.