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Qatar plans to suspend evacuation flights for U.S.-bound Afghan refugees while it hosts World Cup, sources say

The move would add to a massive backlog of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who are trying to resettle in the U.S.
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Qatari officials have said they plan to suspend evacuation flights for Afghan refugees hoping to resettle in the U.S. while the country hosts soccer’s World Cup next month, according to refugee advocates, congressional aides and a source familiar with the Qatari government’s plans.

The move would add to an already massive backlog of tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. military and who are now trying to leave the country after the hard-line Islamist Taliban seized back power last year.

The reported plan comes as Qatar is already under scrutiny over its treatment of migrant workers and its policies on LGBTQ and women’s rights in the run-up to the World Cup, the largest scale international event ever held in the tiny Gulf nation.

Qatar, in cooperation with the U.S. government, oversees weekly flights from Kabul to the Qatari capital, Doha, for Afghans applying to resettle in the U.S. After arriving at a U.S. military base outside Doha, the Afghans have their paperwork reviewed by U.S. authorities, and most continue on to the U.S. There are several thousand Afghans currently housed at the base.

But with the opening ceremony and first World Cup game set for Nov. 20, the government has decided to temporarily halt the flights from Kabul and has already suspended bookings for flights until January, the sources said. 

News of the flight cancellations has started to spread online in Afghanistan, said an Afghan father who worked for the U.S. and is still waiting to leave Afghanistan.

“All doors are closed. Me and my family are hopeless,” said the father, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his family’s safety.

Afghan refugees trying to book flights to Doha have received emails saying it’s not possible to reserve a seat until January, Afghans and advocacy groups said. Flights are continuing to operate at the moment but refugee organizations are worried the planes will soon stop flying out of Kabul.

Asked about Qatar’s plans and whether the U.S. had appealed to Doha to continue with the flights, a State Department spokesperson said: “We remain committed to supporting Afghan relocation to the United States and greatly appreciate Qatar’s partnership.”

According to refugee advocates and congressional aides, there are roughly 128,000 Afghans who have applied for special immigrant visas (SIV), a program set up for Afghans who worked as interpreters, drivers or other jobs for the U.S. government over the past two decades. That number has steadily increased since President Joe Biden withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 after a 20-year presence.

The Biden administration has not released up-to-date numbers on how many Afghans are in the pipeline for special immigrant visas. A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. has issued more than 18,000 special immigrant visas to Afghan applicants and their family members from January 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022.

Human rights organizations and refugee advocacy groups say the Taliban have conducted a campaign of persecution, including beatings and murder against Afghans who worked for the United States, promoted human rights or served in the former Afghan government.

The special immigrant visa program for Afghans has been plagued by long delays, and at the current rate, it could take over 18 years to successfully process all of the pending applications, according to the Association of Wartime Allies, a nonprofit that supports Afghans eligible for the program.

The Biden administration says it has devoted more staff to the program and has reduced the processing time for SIV applications. “The Biden administration continues to demonstrate its commitment to the brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with the United States over the past two decades,” the State Department spokesperson said.

Qatar’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has complained that his country, the first Arab state to host the World Cup, has faced an “unprecedented campaign” of criticism over its preparations for the tournament and rejected allegations of exploitation of migrant workers who helped construct stadiums and other buildings.