International employers accused of abandoning Afghan staff

Many international NGOs are accused of abandoning their staff as thousands of Afghans try to leave the country.

As the deadline for US withdrawal looms, the window for evacuation is closing [File: Donald R. Allen/AFP]

Zarina* sits in her temporary Kabul shelter and her thoughts wander to the days when she still had a chance to escape the Taliban rule. She should now be in Germany, in safety that her last employer GIZ – state-funded development agency German Corporation for International Cooperation – promised her in her contract.

But 12 days after the fall of Kabul, Zarina’s hopes for evacuation to Germany are fading.

“German soldiers going to the airport refuse to pick up GIZ’s local staff. They only take those with German passports or visas. And our organisation did not process any visas for us,” says Zarina in a calm voice full of disillusionment.

“The German staff was evacuated immediately.”

Since the Taliban showed signs of overrunning Afghanistan in the first weeks of August, foreign governments have started up accelerated evacuation efforts to get their nationals and vulnerable Afghans out.

The deadline for the evacuations to end is the same as the deadline set by US President Joe Biden to withdraw foreign troops from Afghanistan 20 years after removing the Taliban in a military invasion.

‘They cannot evacuate us’

But not all foreign employers have been willing to bring their staff to safety. According to Zarina, a civil society adviser with GIZ, the organisation has left approximately 2,500 local workers in Afghanistan, vulnerable to attack from the Taliban.

“When Kabul collapsed, they started to make plans for our evacuation but it never happened. I left my hometown [Mazar-i-Sharif] one week earlier because we had a programme in Kabul. Other colleagues were transported to Kabul with a charter flight but were told that the flight fare will be deducted from their salaries,” Zarina says.

“GIZ had said they were negotiating with the Taliban to find a safe passage for us to the airport. But yesterday [Tuesday], they said that they cannot evacuate us until end of August and that they will take us to a safe place with commercial flights later on. And that it may take months,” says Zarina.

It’s unclear whether any commercial flights will continue operating after the August 31 deadline.

Zarina, who worked on issues such as gender equality and counterextremism, worries that she might be targeted by the Taliban.

Some international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as western journalists and activists with contacts in Afghanistan, have pushed their governments to evacuate local colleagues and people at risk.

The Coalition for Women in Journalism managed to evacuate 90 journalists, both male and female. Media agencies that had local staff also sought to facilitate the evacuation of their employees, though with mixed results.

‘Window for evacuation slowly closing’

Local UN staff cannot expect much assistance, either. As POLITICO reports, while some 720 foreign employees have been offered evacuation, the 3,000 Afghans working for the UN have been left behind without any support.

With less than a week to go before the August 31 deadline, the window for evacuation is slowly closing and Afghans are facing growing obstacles in getting to the airport amid threats from armed groups.

Veteran journalists Oksana Chelysheva and Shahida Tulaganova have joined efforts to help their contacts out of the country, especially members of ethnic minority groups who are in particular danger from the Taliban. They have compiled a list of 33 journalists and activists and their family members but it is still unclear if the group will manage to pass through the airport gates.

According to Chelysheva and Tulaganova, the group includes people who used to work with British government-owned BBC and US Congress-funded Radio Liberty, as well as an employee of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, a development organisation that has worked in Afghanistan for almost 40 years.

The Swedish NGO claims to have 6,000 employees in the country. All of them have been left behind.

“The woman we have on our list contacted her employer, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, asking for evacuation but they have washed their hands. Shahida Tulaganova reached an agreement with the Danes, who have been evacuating their people, that they will add [her] to their evacuation list as long as Sweden sends an official request to Denmark,” Chelysheva says.

“But it has been impossible to reach the office in Stockholm.”

‘We are at huge risk’

Sweden, along with Germany, Belgium, Norway and Greece, among other European countries, had been deporting Afghan asylum seekers back to the war-torn country up to July 8 this year, they stopped only after an official request from the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani to the European Commission.

Now, the same countries expect a rapid arrival of refugees and many of them are less than willing to provide safe haven even to those Afghans who have worked with them over the years. The Dutch and Swedish embassies evacuated their staff without informing their local employees.

Journalists who have worked with foreign media on a freelance basis – and have not managed to leave – have even fewer chances to get out.

Ali* has worked on a freelance basis with various foreign outlets as a local producer, multimedia specialist and photographer. From 2016 to 2018, he was employed by the US Agency for International Development. None of his former employers, however, has been eager to help him and his family.

“They used us, our skills, and now they don’t even respond to emails. Our lives are in danger. All my neighbours knew that I worked with foreigners and three days ago they [the Taliban] came to my house and asked about me,” Ali says.

“On checkpoints, the Taliban check our phones so I had to delete everything. I change my place of hiding every night. We are at huge risk. And all we can do is wait for evacuation.”

* Name has been changed for the individual’s protection.

Source: Al Jazeera