UN Afghanistan Staffers Feel Abandoned As Taliban Surges

UN Afghanistan Staffers Feel Abandoned As Taliban Surges

As the Taliban seized power last week, Afghans working for the UN watched as many of their foreign colleagues boarded planes to flee the country.

But, according to interviews and emails obtained by BuzzFeed News, their increasingly desperate pleas for assistance in fleeing — or, at the very least, for a safe place to stay if the Taliban targets them for their work for an international organization — are being ignored.

Angry current and former staffers said the UN, which has been operating in Afghanistan since 2002, appears to have no plan for its thousands of Afghan nationals to leave the country and has left them with few options but to hunker down at home while militants hunt them down.

In phone calls and texts, four Afghan nationals working for the UN told BuzzFeed News that the UN has not offered them secure housing in Kabul, forcing some to seek refuge with relatives. They pointed out that Afghan nationals working for the UN take far more risks in the country for far less pay than their international colleagues, and their work may put them in danger. According to Reuters, Taliban fighters have ransacked several UN compounds since the Taliban’s stunning takeover last week.

“They are very visible in communities,” said a former international UN staffer who asked to remain anonymous. “The Taliban are well aware of who these people are.”

The UN has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

The secretary-spokesperson, general’s Stéphane Dujarric, stated in an Aug. 18 press conference that the UN could not easily evacuate Afghan nationals from the country because it is “not a nation that issues visas.”

He went on to say that the UN is doing its “utmost” to help national staff and their families. “There are numerous administrative hurdles that must be negotiated and discussed,” Dujarric explained. “However, the national staff is very much at the forefront of what we are attempting to do on a daily basis.”

In Afghanistan, the organization has approximately 300 international staff members and 3,000 Afghan national staff members working for the UN mission as well as agencies such as the UN Development Program and UN Women. On August 18, the organization announced that approximately 100 of its international staff would be temporarily relocated to Kazakhstan.

According to the UN-focused news site PassBlue, Afghan nationals working for the organization felt “alone and petrified” on Friday. New details in this story about Afghan staffers pleading for help hiding from the Taliban — even as one heard militants in his neighborhood asking where he was — raise new questions about whether the UN adequately planned to protect local employees as the Taliban ramped up their military offensive against the Afghan government beginning in May.

“They’ve had months to prepare,” the former international staffer explained.

One Afghan staffer in a UN agency’s operations department said he and his colleagues raised the issue of evacuations repeatedly in the chat box of a Zoom meeting with colleagues and superiors last week, but received no response. (To avoid endangering the four Afghan staffers interviewed for this article, BuzzFeed News is withholding their identifying information.)

“They typically read the chat box,” he explained. “This time, they were seeing the chats but trying to change the subject and finish everything.”

The staffer stated that he had asked his superiors if the UN would assist him and other Afghan staff with valid international visas. However, he was told that the organization could only try to get him out, forcing him to leave behind his wife and young child.

“How does this make any sense?” he wondered. “How am I supposed to leave my family behind when I leave the country?” It is not acceptable to me or the national staff — it goes against humanitarian and human values.”

Similar meetings were described by other Afghan staff members.

“They’re just fooling around with us. “Every week, there is a meeting where they say they are ‘trying our best,’” said another Afghan UN Development Project staffer who works on gender equality. “What kind of effort is this? Why can’t the UN evacuate its staff if small embassies can?”

It is unclear how many UN international staff have been evacuated from Afghanistan, but four staffers told BuzzFeed News that high-level international staff had been evacuated and that it appeared that the only people left were Afghans.

According to Liam McDowall, a spokesperson for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), the UN is pressuring other countries to support visa applications and temporary residence requests from Afghan staff members and their families.

Unama did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment for this article.

According to staffers interviewed by BuzzFeed News, UN officials told them they were campaigning for visas so they could relocate to other countries, but some felt it was too little, too late.

“This is not the time for visas,” said one Afghan UNDP staffer. “We have UN identity cards; they can discuss an immediate evacuation with other countries.”

One UN employee who has urged the UN to evacuate its female Afghan employees due to the Taliban’s abuses of women told BuzzFeed News that she had requested assistance for Afghan staffers in town hall meetings and through local and global staff associations.

“No one heard us,” she complained. “No one is paying attention.”

“They told us we had to ‘stay and deliver,’” she added, quoting a UN slogan about the organization’s presence in Afghanistan.

According to reports, the UN relocated some of its Afghan staff to Kabul to reduce their risk, but they were not placed in secure locations.

“They haven’t been housing them in a fortified compound; they’ve been left to their own devices,” said the former international staffer, who had spoken with Afghan staffers directly.

According to Reuters, the World Bank evacuated all of its Afghan staff on August 20.

A coalition of UN unions and staff associations launched a petition urging the UN Secretary-General to take “all necessary measures,” including evacuation, to protect staff. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had nearly 5,300 signatures.

“We are supposed to protect everyone’s human rights, and now we are leaving our own to fend for themselves,” said Arora Akanksha, a UN auditor running for secretary-general. “Shame on the United Nations and its leadership.”

“With this whole ‘stay and deliver’ message that the UN is promoting, we should ask ourselves who is staying?” she continued.

According to an Unama staffer who says he is hiding in a remote location, Taliban militants are questioning his neighbors about his whereabouts. He had worked on sensitive political projects and believes he may have been targeted.

“Everyone here knows I’m working with Unama,” he explained. “I am well-known.”

He told BuzzFeed News that days before the Taliban took over Kabul, he asked his department to relocate him to a safer location where militants would have a more difficult time identifying him by speaking with locals. According to emails he shared with BuzzFeed News, a few days later, after the militant group had already seized power, he received a response advising him to hide at home.

“I feel like a detainee,” he explained. “I can’t go outside because I can’t see anyone. “How long am I going to be here like this?”

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UN Afghanistan Staffers Feel Abandoned As Taliban Surges