HRW: Afghan evacuees are kept in ‘prison like’ detention centres in Abu Dhabi

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said, in a report published on 15 March, that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has “arbitrarily detained” between 2400 and 2700 people who were evacuated from Afghanistan after the fall of the country to the Taliban in August 2021.

The refugees, HRW says, are locked up for the last 15 months in two detention facilities in Abu Dhabi.

The report says:

“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,” the report quoted Joey Shea, United Arab Emirates researcher at the HRW, as saying. “After enduring significant trauma fleeing Afghanistan, they are facing further trauma now, after spending well over a year in limbo in the UAE.”

The two camps, where the evacuees, including women and children, are kept under strict police supervision and surveillance cameras, are called Emirates Humanitarian City (EHC) and Tasameem Workers City (TWC) in Abu Dhabi.

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HRW interviewed 16 detainees in the EHC, including eight evacuees who had worked for US-supported programmes in Afghanistan before the country fell to the Taliban.

According to the interviewees, the movements of these Afghans are strictly restricted, they are denied access to a fair and effective refugee status determination process, they are not provided with healthy food, families are placed in unsafe rooms and halls, and children do not have access to appropriate education.

“The big problem is that the rooms are very small, four by four meters, and the doors don’t have a lock,” one is quoted to say, adding that “I don’t have privacy and I don’t feel comfortable sleeping in my room.”

A female evacuee said that she doesn’t “feel safe when the door is not locked at night.”

The detainees are not allowed to have visitors from outside and are not free to meet relatives or friends.

According to HRW, due to the harsh living conditions and restrictions, some of the evacuees have opted to return to Afghanistan despite the risks. But the US State Department has told HRW that a small number had volunteered to return.

Joey Shea, the Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch told KabulNow: 

“The detainees are kept in appalling conditions with no hope of a way out. They are stuck in complete limbo, without access to anyone dealing with their resettlement cases from the US or other countries. Many have never been spoken to and may not even be registered anywhere. That needs to change. 

“We have not heard from the UNHCR on whether they have access to these people. The US State Department said the UN refugee agency has limited access.” 

HRW has found that many detainees are suffering from psychological and mental health problems, and at least one person has attempted suicide.

Sayed Yousef Halim, a former Afghan Supreme Court judge, died in the camp due to an apparent heart attack in October 2022. “He was alone and depressed. He was here for one year without his family,” the report quoted a person who knew him.

HRW has called on the UAE government ease conditions for the refugees and release them from detention as well as urging the US to use its leverage to persuade the Emirati government to do so. It has further called on the US government to expedite its resettlement programme for eligible evacuees in the UAE and asked other countries to increase refugee resettlement places for these Afghans stranded in the UAE.

The US and allies evacuated tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan as they ended their involvement in the country, with more than 10,000 passing through the US, many of whom remain stranded.

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