Thousands of Afghans detained in ‘prison-like’ conditions in Abu Dhabi, finds HRW

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Thousands of Afghan nationals who fled their home country to escape the Taliban have remained in arbitrary detention in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), revealed a damning new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Nearly 2,400-2,700 Afghan citizens, mainly families and unmarried men, are stuck in extremely poor quality and cramped living conditions for over 15 months now in the “Emirates Humanitarian City”, revealed a months-long investigation by an HRW researcher who spoke to over a dozen of those detained.

The HRW found one of the country’s former Supreme Court judges had died in the camp, while another civilian attempted to die by suicide. The difficult living conditions include an alleged deprivation of legal assistance and denial of permissions to leave the premises.

“The camp is exactly like a prison,” one Afghanistan national inside the camp, roughly midway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, told the international human rights watchdog.

Grim visuals from August 2021, when the Taliban’s fighters had stormed Kabul and taken over Afghanistan, showed the harrowing lengths to which people afraid of the hardliners were trying to leave the country.

The families stuck in the UAE were also among the civilians “desperately” trying to escape the Taliban’s clutches, said HRW researcher Joey Shea, who spoke with more than a dozen people inside the camp.

The “Humanitarian City” was said to be a temporary solution for the emergency transit of Afghans fleeing their home country.

After weeks of waiting for assistance, many Afghans were finally able to board private chartered flights in September and October from Mazar-i-Sharif sent by the UAE government last year, carrying hopes of escaping a barbaric regime.

Ms Shea, who interviewed 16 detainees over months and was informed of more than 2,000 people inside the camp, says the situation is alarming, as many families have been locked inside rooms measuring 4×4 metres with beds now infested with bugs.

While families were allotted a room roughly smaller than average-sized garages to accommodate their children, multiple single men have been forced to live inside single rooms in a large hall, the research found.

The refugees are stuck in a limbo in the UAE and the crisis has only brought more suffering for them as they rely on the limited money they had when they left Afghanistan, explained Ms Shea.

People who spoke to the HRW said they are not allowed to leave housing complexes and are only able to exit premises for “essential hospital visits” that are under the close supervision of security guards.

This has effectively ruled out regular health check ups and medical assistance for the refugees even as they are forced to cope with increasing isolation and a widespread mental health crisis.

The refugees have raised concerns about their steadily deteriorating living conditions ever since they first landed there.

The morale was initially high, the detainees say.

In the first few weeks, “we were okay with the room, but now we have been here for 14 months and life is very difficult”, a woman told the HRW, adding that they are using the singular living quarter as a dining room, living room and place to sleep.

There is a toilet inside the room, but no cleaning facilities.

One of the inhabitants told the HRW that the cots provided to them are infested with bedbugs and the accommodation facility is never cleaned.

Every age group – parents, young men and children denied schooling for almost two years now – has been plagued with depression.

“They are all suffering from depression, and this is getting worse the longer they stay in the camp,” said one of the persons interviewed.

The situation has worsened to the extent that one of the detainees from the hall housing single men decided to return to Afghanistan, Ms Shea told The Independent over a phone call. The researcher, who covers Saudi Arabia and the UAE for HRW, did not specify details of the person who left the camp to preserve their anonymity.

An overwhelming sentiment among some detainees was to return to Afghanistan, Ms Shea says.

“My roommate wanted to go back to Afghanistan, and he returned. He was hopeless about being moved to another country, so he decided to go back,” one of the detainees told Ms Shea.

Before managing to escape Kabul, these evacuees spent between several days and weeks in hiding. Their bleak hopes had seemingly turned a corner when they were told by relatives, colleagues or employers with connections to American citizens about a ticket out of Afghanistan.

The HRW found out that some of the evacuees, interviewed and currently housed in Abu Dhabi, previously worked at some point for US government-affiliated entities or programmes in Afghanistan.

“It is most deeply concerning to see thousands who fled violence from the hands of the Taliban be stuck in limbo when they in fact hoped for a better life,” Ms Shea says.

She pointed out that hundreds of children detained at Humanitarian City have not been provided any access to appropriate education since their arrival.

“One parent of three teenagers said that his children are not attending school because no meaningful education is available for them,” she tells The Independent.

The stalemate over the future of the Afghan evacuees has lingered on in the form of no pending asylum applications and no visible steps forward to move to another country.

It has been enforced under the hawkish scrutiny of the guards monitoring the apartment complexes, Ms Shea said.

“The big problem is we don’t know our future and we don’t know our destination,” commented one detainee on the future of the thousands held inside the complex.

Refuting the findings of the HRW’s report, the UAE said that around 87 per cent of over 17,000 evacuees taken to the Emirates Humanitarian City on “humanitarian grounds” have been resettled.

“Emirates Humanitarian City in Abu Dhabi has hosted over 17,000 evacuees since September 2021 and successfully resettled around 87 per cent. The UAE continues to work with the US Embassy to process travelers and liaise with US counterparts in efforts to resettle the remaining evacuees in a timely manner as per the original agreement,” a UAE official told The Independent.

Evacuees – particularly women, girls, and families – have received a “comprehensive range of high-quality housing, sanitation, health, clinical, counseling, education, and food services to ensure their welfare”, the official added.

“The UAE continues to do everything it can to bring this extraordinary exercise in humanitarian resettlement to a satisfactory conclusion. We understand that there are frustrations and this has taken longer than intended to complete.”

The official said that UAE has remained in touch with the US and other international allies to “ensure that Afghan evacuees can live in safety, security, and dignity”.

This article was amended on the day of publication. It previously incorrectly referred in two places to the ‘International Humanitarian City’, but the camp referred to in the HRW report was the ‘Emirates Humanitarian City’.