A small but steady airlift of Afghan refugees that has quietly evacuated thousands of US battlefield allies out of the Taliban-seized country over the last year will come to a halt in November as Qatar — a chokepoint in that refugee pipeline — hosts the World Cup soccer tournament.
Jeff Phaneuf, the director of advocacy for No One Left Behind, an Afghan relocation group, told Coffee or Die Magazine that US State Department officials have told his group that the shutdown would begin in November and last until the New Year.
Qatar officials have not commented on the reason for the end of the refugee flights, which land at Doha International Airport, the same gateway through which hundreds of thousands of tourists from across the world are expected to pass as they follow their nation’s teams in the World Cup.
Qatar plays a vital role as a “lily pad,” or transit site, in the ongoing evacuation of Afghans who worked with or otherwise supported US troops during 20 years of conflict there, Phaneuf said. Afghans who are nearing full approval of a US visa — most under the Special Immigrant Visa program for US wartime allies — are flown to Doha and housed at Al Udeid Air Base just outside the city.
There, teams of US State Department officials process the refugees’ final visas, a process that can take weeks or even months.
But without permission to fly refugees into Qatar, much of that work will cease.
Phaneuf said that immigrant groups like No One Left Behind have long feared that Qatar would stop the flights during the World Cup and have asked the State Department to work on a different location for immigrant processing.
“We’ve been begging them to find a plan B,” Phaneuf told Coffee or Die. “Word is spreading in Afghanistan and people are freaking out. They are deeply distressed after waiting so long for our help.”
Since August 2021, the State Department and organizations like No One Left Behind have kept alive a tenuous pipeline of immigrants under the US’s Special Immigrant Visa for Afghans program, which allows Afghans who had direct ties to the US war effort to relocate to the US with their families.
Retaliation by the Taliban against former US employees is well documented and ongoing, according to immigrant groups. In a release, No One Left Behind said an SIV applicant the organization was working with who was scheduled for a flight was recently murdered by the Taliban.
Phaneuf said the operation has sent roughly one flight per week, each with over a hundred or more Afghans on board.
A two-month shutdown could keep thousands in Afghanistan longer than they expected, likely at great personal expense and possibly danger. The only other way out of the country for most, Phaneuf said, was an overland journey to Pakistan, where immigrants can then slowly work through the visa process. But unlike Qatar — where housing and food are provided by US authorities in the relative comfort and safety of a US military base — families that flee through Pakistan must survive on their own, paying for rent, food, and transportation.
And the visa process in Pakistan can often take up to six months, Phaneuf said.
“As important as the success of the World Cup may be to Qatar, it should not prevent Afghan SIV applicants from being evacuated there or through other lily pads,” Phil Caruso, No One Left Behind’s executive director, said in a release. “The pace of evacuations is not fast enough, and we are increasingly seeing cases of brutal retribution against Afghan SIV applicants by the Taliban.”
Phaneuf said he was hard pressed to understand what issue the Qatar government would have with the Afghan refugees during the World Cup. The refugee flights are relatively infrequent and the Afghans arriving have essentially no contact with tourists or everyday Qataris passing through Doha’s international airport. Indeed, he said, refugees on the US base would be essentially invisible to World Cup visitors.
The World Cup matches up 24 national soccer teams from across the world, including the US, England, Germany, and Brazil. The tournament covers a longer calendar period and draws larger crowds and TV audiences than the Olympics. The tournament will run from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18, with games played across eight stadiums around the small desert nation.
Qatar’s World Cup has been shrouded in controversy since it was announced that the nation, which has no international soccer tradition, would host the tournament. The country won the right to host the games through a process widely viewed as rife with widespread bribery of international soccer officials. The oil-rich nation has been on a decadelong spending and building spree to prepare for the event but embarrassments and criticisms have dogged the nation’s preparation, including the tournament’s move from summer to winter to avoid Qatar’s blistering summer heat.
According to State Department numbers, about 160,000 SIV-eligible Afghans remain in Afghanistan (NBC News put the number at 128,000).