Thousands of Afghans held in ‘prison’ conditions in Abu Dhabi, HRW finds

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

Nearly 2,400-2,700 Afghan civilians, mostly families and single men, have been trapped in extremely poor quality and cramped living conditions for more than 15 months now in the “International Humanitarian City,” revealed a months-long investigation by an HRW researcher who spoke to a dozen from the prisoners.

HRW found that one of the country’s former Supreme Court judges had died in the camp, while another civilian attempted suicide. Harsh living conditions include alleged deprivation of legal assistance and refusal to leave the premises.

“The camp is just like a prison,” an Afghan national inside the camp, about halfway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, told the international human rights watchdog.

Grim images from August 2021, when Taliban fighters stormed Kabul and took over Afghanistan, showed the agonizing lengths to which people who feared the hardliners were trying to flee the country.

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

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

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

Ms Shea, who interviewed 16 prisoners over months and was briefed on more than 2,000 people inside the camp, says the situation is alarming, with many families locked in 4x4m rooms with beds now infested with bedbugs.

While families had a room about the size of a medium-sized garage to accommodate their children, many single men were forced to live in single rooms in a large hall, the survey found.

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

People who spoke to HRW said they are not allowed to leave residential complexes and can only leave areas for “essential hospital visits” which are closely monitored by security guards.

This has effectively ruled out regular health screening and medical assistance for refugees, even as they face increasing isolation and a widespread mental health crisis.

Refugees have raised concerns about their steadily deteriorating living conditions since they first landed there.

Morale was initially high, the detainees say.

In the first few weeks, “we were fine with the room, but now we’ve been here for 14 months and life is very difficult,” one woman told HRW, adding that they use the only living room as a dining room. living room and sleeping area.

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

One of the residents told 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 who have been refusing school for almost two years now – is plagued by depression.

“They all suffer from depression and it gets worse the longer they stay in the camp,” said one of the people interviewed.

The situation has worsened to the point where one of the prisoners from the single room has decided to return to Afghanistan, Ms Shea said The independent in a phone call. The researcher, who covers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for HRW, did not elaborate on the person who left the camp to remain anonymous.

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

“My roommate wanted to go back to Afghanistan and he did. He was desperate to be transferred to another country so he decided to come back,” one of the prisoners told Ms Shea.

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

HRW found that some of the evacuees interviewed and currently housed in Abu Dhabi had previously worked at some point for US government-linked entities or programs in Afghanistan.

“It is deeply disturbing to see thousands who fled violence at the hands of the Taliban in limbo, when in reality they were hoping for a better life,” says Ms Shea.

He pointed out that hundreds of children detained in Humanitarian City have not had access to proper education since their arrival.

“One parent of three teenagers said his children are not going to school because there is no meaningful education for them,” he says. The independent.

The impasse over the future of Afghan IDPs has remained in the form of pending asylum applications and no visible steps forward to move to another country.

It has been enforced under the hawkish control of guards who monitor the apartment complexes, Ms. Shea said.

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

Refuting the findings of the HRW report, the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said that about 87 percent of the 17,000 displaced people taken to the Emirates Humanitarian City for “humanitarian reasons” have been resettled.

“Emirates Humanitarian City in Abu Dhabi has hosted more than 17,000 displaced people since September 2021 and has successfully resettled around 87%. The UAE continues to work with the US Embassy to process the travelers and liaise with US counterparts in efforts to resettle the remaining evacuees in a timely manner in accordance with the original agreement,” the UAE foreign ministry said. The independent via email.

He added that the displaced – particularly women, girls and families – have received “a full range of high-quality housing, sanitation, health, clinical, counselling, education and nutrition services to ensure their well-being”.

“The UAE continues to do its best to satisfactorily complete this outstanding humanitarian resettlement exercise. We understand there are frustrations and it has taken longer than anticipated to complete,” the ministry said.

It adds that it has remained in contact with the US and other international allies to “ensure that Afghan evacuees can live in safety, security and dignity”.

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