'They're really sitting ducks': Refugee advocates inundated with pleas for help from vulnerable Afghans

WASHINGTON – They are hiding in their homes, destroying evidence of any association with the U.S. government and secretly pleading with advocates in America for help.

Over the last 24 hours, Afghan women, journalists, human rights advocates and former translators for the U.S. military have flooded U.S.-based refugee groups with desperate messages seeking a way out of their country now that the Taliban have taken control.

“They’re really sitting ducks,” said Gayatri Patel, the vice president for external relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

Patel and other advocates have been working feverishly to assemble a “master list” of potential evacuees, even as they watch in horror at the chaos unfolding at the Kabul airport, where panicked Afghans have rushed the tarmac and tried to grab ahold of departing planes.

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"We’ve been getting names and feeding them to the folks at the State Department," she said. "This is such an urgent process ... Everybody is terrified for their friends and colleagues" who are stuck in Afghanistan.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said her staff has been overwhelmed with gut-wrenching requests for help.

"It is emails, calls, texts, twitter DMs (direct messages) of people desperately seeking to flee a country being overtaken by the Taliban," she said. "In some ways we feel so powerless because at this point the situation on the ground is just constantly changing, and what we’re seeing on TV and hearing on the ground is complete chaos."

The Lutheran immigration service is specifically focused on helping Afghans who worked for the U.S. military during the war – a group that Vignarajah says numbers about 80,000 assuming the Afghans bring multiple family members with them to the U.S.

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Afghan women team walk together in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in October 2019.
Afghan women team walk together in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in October 2019.

The Biden administration has already evacuated about 1,200 Afghans who served alongside American troops to Ft. Lee, a base in Virginia. The Pentagon is looking for two additional military bases in the United States to house additional evacuated Afghans, said spokesman John Kirby. As many as 22,000 Afghans may be housed at those bases.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday the Biden administration will continue to evacuate people as long as the airport is secure. He said the U.S. is prioritizing American citizens, then Afghan nationals employed by the now-closed embassy, Afghans who worked for the military and then other at-risk Afghans.

“We will be working around the clock to relocate as many eligible individuals as we can,” Price said, though he declined to estimate how many people the U.S. could get out because the situation remains fluid. "We are going to maintain a presence on the ground for as long as it is responsible and safe for us to do so."

Patel's group is working to help women's rights defenders, while other groups are scrambling to assist Afghan journalists. On Aug. 9, suspected Taliban fighters killed an Afghan radio station manager in Kabul and kidnapped a journalist in southern Helmand province, according to Reuters. The militant Islamic group has a long history of targeting reporters.

"They have a target on their backs," said Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, advocacy and communications director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which runs an emergency assistance program for journalists in danger.

"It’s become really acute at this point," she said. "We have hundreds of journalists who are in desperate need of relocation." In addition to about 300 journalists the group has vetted, she said another 400 new email requests have come in over the last 24 hours.

Guillén Kaiser said the majority of the committee's priority cases are female reporters who have reported on issues of gender equality. "That makes them really, really vulnerable."

She said it's also vital to protect those reporters who want to stay and to ensure Afghanistan maintains an independent press.

"We will not understand the depth of this humanitarian crisis, in its full blown reality, unless journalists who remain in Afghanistan are able to report the news," Guillén Kaiser said.

Vignarajah and others have spent weeks flooding congressional offices, the White House, and the State Department with requests on behalf of vulnerable Afghans. Those efforts dramatically ramped up over the last 24 hours as the Taliban entered Kabul and the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed.

"We’ve been screaming from the rooftops for months now that these allies needed to be moved to Guam," said Vignarajah. But she said the Biden administration wasted precious time trying to negotiate agreements with third countries to accept the potential refugees while the State Department vetted their applications. She blasted that decision as "outsourcing our moral obligation."

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U.S. troops on Monday sought to gain control of the international airport in Kabul after thousands of Afghans rushed through the civilian side and swarmed the military landing strip. At least seven people have died in the mayhem.

Senior U.S. military officials say the dead include some who fell from a departing American military transport jet, according to the Associated Press. Videos show people clinging to the sides of a U.S. military plane as it taxied, as well as falling from a plane as it took off.

In a joint statement issued Sunday evening, the Pentagon and State Department said U.S. officials were working to secure the airport to allow "the safe departure of U.S. and allied personnel from Afghanistan via civilian and military flights." U.S. officials have not said how many Afghans they will evacuate.

In the coming days, "we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals," the statement said.

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The Biden administration is also scrambling to evacuate of thousands of Afghans who worked with American troops and are eligible for special immigrant visas.

Advocates say it may be too little, too late.

"It feels very bleak," Patel said. She said congressional pressure will be key in trying to make sure the Biden administration doesn't end the evacuation campaign before every vulnerable Afghan is out.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is among those working on the issue and pressing the White House to ramp up its efforts.

"Without swift, decisive action from the administration, Afghan civilians will suffer or die at the hands of the Taliban," she said in a statement Monday. She called on the administration to expedite some steps in the visa process for Afghans who worked with the U.S. military, as well as women, journalists and others.

"And there must be an immediate expansion of the refugee program for Afghan women seeking asylum, whose lives are in jeopardy as the Taliban resumes control and turns back the clock on 20 years of progress for women’s rights," Shaheen said. "A failure to act now will seal their fate."

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Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook and Michael Collins

Three Afghan women in burqas in 1996 after the Taliban religious army took over Kabul.
Three Afghan women in burqas in 1996 after the Taliban religious army took over Kabul.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghan women, journalists, translators seek help from US groups