Afghans are still trying to escape their country and find new homes, but as the world's attention turns elsewhere, the money is drying up

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Afghans are still trying to escape their country and find new homes, but as the world's attention turns elsewhere, the money is drying up
Afghan refugees hold protests outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta, Indonesia on October 4, 2021. They called for resettlement to another country. Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
  • Despite a lack of media coverage, NGOs are working day and night to get Afghans out of their country.
  • But resources are drying up, and countries are offering little help to get Afghans to new countries.
  • We can't turn away from this ongoing crisis. These refugees need our help.
  • Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance journalist in Wales.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

It hasn't even been two months since the Taliban took over Kabul in Afghanistan. Following the government's collapse, every news story seemed to cover the humanitarian crisis - you couldn't escape the photographs, the videos, and the voices of people desperate to escape the impending rule of the Taliban. Governments and international humanitarian organizations felt compelled to act - chartering planes, organizing land evacuations, collecting donations, and promising resettlement.

But in a matter of days, countries stopped evacuating people from airports in Afghanistan. In a matter of weeks, the media stopped putting coverage of the ongoing struggles faced by Afghans unable to leave the country on the front page.

Yet, the work to evacuate and resettle Afghans has not stopped. NGOs, charities, foundations, and private organizations are still working day and night to get people out of Afghanistan - people who were left behind by the very countries who jumped in to promote freedom, education, art, and equality. They are now left exposed following a messy, irresponsible withdrawal of foreign troops.

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I've been talking to the people still working to get vulnerable people - journalists, academics, women, artists, etc - out of Afghanistan. Their challenges, frustrations, and needs are all eerily similar, echoing a need for more resources.

'I hear you, I'm sorry. I'll do what I can.'

"I've been up since 6 a.m. on my first phone call," Sophia Mahfooz, founder of Afghan Innovation Foundation, which was set up to help get endangered women and minority groups out of Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover, told me in a recent interview. "And it's now nearly midnight. It's just been non-stop."

Mahfooz, along with others who are part of small NGOs, foundations, grassroots communities, and private organizations are giving all their spare time and energy contacting at-risk people in Afghanistan and third countries, campaigning for action from large humanitarian organizations, making deals with governments to resettle refugees, planning charter flights, and raising funds. They are worn out and feel like they have been left with all the responsibility, but no power.

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"I'm just trying not to have a nervous breakdown," Sanam Naragi-Anderlini, CEO of the International Civil Society Action Network and director of the Centre for Women, Peace, and Security at the London School of Economics said to me. "My whole team is just on the edge of losing it because we're getting hundreds of notices from people all the time who want to get out of Afghanistan. I know we can't help everyone, but I promised myself to respond - to say 'I hear you, I'm sorry. I'll do what I can'."

"I'm really, really angry," Neelam Raina, challenge leader for security, protracted conflict, refugees and displacement for the Global Challenges Research Fund, told me.

As media attention turns to other affairs, the sense of urgency to act is lost, and with it goes funding and accountability for larger organizations and governments who had promised to help.

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The media isn't totally at fault. They are required to cover the latest breaking stories, happening at every moment all around the world. Yet, when newspapers turn their attention to the next crisis, the general public tends to forget about what they can't see. The public doesn't give as much money or pressure the people in charge to take action, because it's no longer on every front page.

To many, Afghanistan is no longer a priority. But the people I spoke to have kept contacting, evacuating, fundraising, advocating, resettling, and emotionally supporting those that have been forgotten. For them, the story is far from over.

Where are these visas?

"The biggest barrier right now is that countries are not issuing visas such that people can travel," Brad Blitz, head of the Department of International Politics and Policy at University College London, said to me. He's working with a team to get 252 academics and their families out of Afghanistan.

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Right now, if an Afghan wants to leave Afghanistan, they cannot simply drive over the border into Pakistan or jump on a plane. They need a visa for travel, otherwise, Pakistan - or any other country - will not accept them.

The UK has promised to resettle 20,000 refugees over the next few years. Canada has said it will resettle 20,000, and Australia said it would take 3,000. The US authorized $500 million for "unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees." Other countries haven't made promises, but have stated they would support the resettlement of Afghan refugees.

However, these promises are null and void without a plan for how to get people out of Afghanistan, into third, transitory countries, and across the borders to their final destination.

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"We say to governments that we know who needs to get out and they tell us they have to be processed," Naraghi-Anderlini said to me. "But where is the process?"

To obtain a visa to get into these countries, refugees are being told they must get out of Afghanistan to a transitory country, and then apply for a visa. But they can't even get into that transitory country without a visa for onward travel.

The solution to this problem would be for countries who have promised to resettle Afghan refugees to take the lists of people who need to get out and issue online visas for them to travel to that country. But, they refuse to do it.

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As demand rises, prices skyrocket

Five weeks ago, Sophia Mahfooz was able to get people across Afghan borders for a price that has risen by upwards of 600%.

The more scarce and in demand something is, prices can and will soar. Chartered flights by governments and large humanitarian organizations have stopped, leaving the cost of buses, taxis, and planes to be paid for by the "little guys," who only have small pots of funding.

Several countries have said to these small organizations that if they can pay to get the refugees into their countries and fund their resettlement, the refugees can come. But without media attention, private donations are slowing down, and the money is drying up.

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Evacuations are only the beginning

Once Afghan refugees manage to arrive at their final destinations - tired, traumatized, and confused - resettlement begins.

I spoke with Naheed Samadi Bahram, US director of Women for Afghan Women, about the efforts her small team is making to welcome Afghan refugees into New York. They set up a culturally appropriate holding space (with halal food, coffee, and tea), sourced volunteers who could translate, raised money for clothing, undergarments, shoes, and socks for almost 750 individuals, and are in the process of hiring an immigration attorney and mental health counselor.

"We're exhausted," she told me. She didn't blame anyone for the chaos to resettle Afghan refugees, saying everyone is doing the best they can.

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But in spite of everyone doing the best they can, there are questions that need to be asked and support that needs to be given from governments - not just small organizations with limited capacity and resources. More funding is needed to give small organizations the flexibility to provide essentials, counselling, language lessons, and career support. Likewise, long-term housing plans need to be discussed and decided upon.

The Afghan evacuations and resettlement plans are only the beginning. We must not turn our attention away.

Small teams of committed people are moving mountains to get people out of Afghanistan, but they can't do it alone - they need our continued support.

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