Several months after the Afghan government asked its citizens to flee Afghanistan, members of a group of mostly young refugees left their makeshift home in southern Pakistan and crossed into Iran to join hundreds of others. When they arrived in Iran, they planned to jump on buses headed toward safer countries — to India, Canada, the United States, Germany. On the last leg of their journey, however, they encountered a roadblock.
In January 2016, the bus they had planned to use was stopped by Tajik authorities. Four of the refugees — including one who had been a national basketball player for Afghanistan — had been arrested and sent back to Afghanistan. The remaining 86 refugees soon joined them in jail.
The refugees — men, women and children from northern Afghanistan — told an American intermediary, the Rev. James N. Hagit, they had no protection from the Taliban. The extremists had told them they would never be allowed to live in the United States and still had the means to “kill them all at any time.” At a time when President Donald Trump is emphasizing the importance of U.S. immigration laws, the story of the 86 Afghans highlights the complications involved in the immigration system and its growing use as a scapegoat for the country’s troubles. The drama of their new lives in Iran captured national attention last week. ABC News reported Friday that President Hassan Rouhani had raised the Afghans’ story in conversations with U.S. diplomats and other world leaders.
The Afghans gathered outside of the Tehran Detention Center on Jan. 5, 2016, telling relatives and well-wishers that they would be there for at least a month. A supporter from the International Committee of the Red Cross offered them $5,000, a bribe they did not recognize.
The lawyer pressed them for the money and kept insisting that they would be deported to Afghanistan, not put on a bus to Tajikistan. The next day, they learned that they would be sent to Tajikistan for a month.
“It’s not possible,” one of the Afghans told a friend. “We won’t be treated like this.”
“No, then let us have a flight to Tajikistan,” the friend said.
The Afghans protested the way they had been treated and filed a lawsuit against the Tajik government in the Federal Court of the Land of Afghanistan on Feb. 9, 2016. In July, the court finally freed the 85 refugees.
But they were left confused, jobless and, at some points, in danger. At one point, a Canadian embassy official warned the group that Tajik authorities planned to deport them immediately. But that was nothing more than another roadblock, some of the refugees said. The Canadian officials insisted that these Afghans were legitimate asylum-seekers and therefore would have a chance at a visa in Canada. But when Canadian officials at the U.S. Embassy intervened, visa consideration for Afghans slowed.