Human Rights Watch States 2,700 Afghan Evacuees Arbitrarily Detained in UAE

Credit: Reuters File photo

The latest: Emirati authorities arbitrarily detained 2,700 Afghan evacuees for over 15 months, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.


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  • According to the organization, detainees were not given any legal opportunities to obtain refugee status in the United Arab Emirates or seek resettlement elsewhere. They are housed in Emirates Humanitarian City in Abu Dhabi without access to legal counsel or adequate education for their children, HRW said in a report.
  • “Living conditions have also deteriorated significantly, with detainees describing overcrowding, decay of infrastructure, and insect infestations,” the report said, adding that many detainees are suffering from depression and other psychological ailments.
  • The U.S. State Department office that is responsible for the relocation of Afghans responded to the report by saying that the U.S. commitment to resettling evacuees, including those being held in Abu Dhabi – is an “enduring one.” However, between 2,500 and 2,700 Afghans did not qualify for resettlement elsewhere and remained in “arbitrary detention” as of January, according to HRW.
  • 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 Afghan inside the camp, roughly midway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, told the international human rights watchdog.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • An overwhelming sentiment among some detainees was to return to Afghanistan, Shea said.
  • 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,” added Shea.
  • The UAE, for its part, said it was working with US counterparts to complete the resettlement process but denied reports of dire living conditions.


Why it matters? The UAE offered to temporarily host thousands of Afghan refugees evacuated from the country after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021. The evacuees were housed in Emirates Humanitarian City and Tasameem Workers City with many having been approved for resettlement in the U.S., Canada and other countries.


Zoom out: The rights organisation stated that the UAE should ensure that Afghans have access to counsel and legal services as many Afghans had been trying to apply for US resettlement but had not had fair and effective refugee status determination or other international protection procedures, or opportunities for onward movement.

  • The continued detention of the Afghans is unnecessary and arbitrary, Human Rights Watch said.
  • HRW urged the UAE government to investigate human rights violations that have occurred in Humanitarian City. It asked the UAE authorities to urgently identify and release children, pregnant and nursing women. It also stated that adequate healthcare should be provided to those detained.
  • It stated that the US government should leverage its influence with UAE authorities to urge the UAE to release detained Afghan evacuees, ensure they all have access to fair and individualized processes for assessing their legal status and protection needs.
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