War drives thousands of Afghan refugees from Ukraine

Three weeks ago Haseeb Noori became a refugee – for the second time.

The 45-year-old Afghan lawyer was living with his wife and five children in a makeshift refugee camp near the Ukraine-Slovakia border when Russian bombs started falling.

“My kids freaked out and we decided to leave and head for the border,” Noori said in an interview with VOA.

Thousands of people were rushing to Ukraine’s borders with Western European countries. After a futile attempt to cross into Slovakia on February 24, the family turned around and headed north to the Polish border, joining other refugees in a replay of their frantic exit from Kabul the last year.

“After two days and two nights and a walk of more than 50 kilometers, we entered Poland,” said Noori, speaking from a refugee camp in Barneveld, the Netherlands, where he arrived there. two weeks.

Noori and her family were among hundreds of Afghans who were evacuated to Ukraine by the country’s military following the Taliban’s August 15 takeover of Afghanistan. Some of the evacuees resettled in the United States and Canada in recent months, but most still lived in Ukraine. when Russia invaded the country last month.

mass migration

The war has forced more than 3 million people to leave the country, the largest mass migration to Europe since World War II. Among them were more than 162,000 foreign nationals who lived in Ukraine, according to the International Organization for Migration.

In response to the crisis, the European Union on March 4 launched an emergency protection program for refugees from Ukraine, granting them residence rights, health insurance, education and other benefits in the country. entire bloc of 27 members.

Benefits are applicable to refugees and other permanent residents of Ukraine. But the EU directive is applied differently by different countries, and it’s unclear how many Afghans who escaped from Ukraine qualify for temporary protection.

FILE – Afghans trying to flee Ukraine sleep in a train station, February 28, 2022, in Lviv, in the west of the country.

Before war broke out in Ukraine, more than 5,000 Afghans lived in Ukraine, according to Nigara Mirdad, political adviser at the Afghan embassy in Warsaw.

While some fled to Romania and Ukraine’s other neighbors, the majority – around 3,000 Afghans – crossed into Poland, according to Mirdad.

Unable to move to other European countries, some stayed in Poland.

Only in movies

“Najibullah Mohammad Hafiz was two weeks into his second semester at Kharkiv Medical University when fighting broke out. Two days later, the 20-year-old left Kharkiv for a perilous five-day trek of more than 1,100 kilometers on foot, by car and by train to the Polish border.

“According to my calculations, we walked 67 kilometers to get to the Polish border,” Hafiz said. “What we went through, you can only see in the movies. I never imagined it would happen in real life.”

With his student documents left behind in Kharkiv, Hafiz remains behind.

“It’s unclear how long we’ll be here, what’s going to happen,” he said.

Mirdad, the Afghan embassy counselor in Warsaw, said most Afghans spend a day or two in Poland before moving to Western European countries, mainly Germany and the Netherlands. The flow of Afghan refugees has slowed in recent days, she added.

Hajira Sadat, a Nuremberg-based interpreter who works with refugees in Germany, said Afghans with permanent Ukrainian residency are issued two-year residency permits by German authorities.

“They also receive government benefits given to other refugees,” she said.

Uncertainty

But not all Afghans residing in Ukraine have received benefits under the European Union’s new temporary protection scheme. Mohammad Isa, who said he had a five-year residence permit in Ukraine, was issued a two-month visa upon arrival in Munich.

“After two months, [it] will be extended, but I don’t know what will happen after that,” he told VOA.

In the Netherlands, newly arrived Afghan refugees face similar uncertainty. Noori, the Afghan lawyer, said Dutch immigration authorities have yet to register her family as refugees.

“It’s not clear if we will receive temporary protection or what,” Noori said.

Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he said, the State Department had evacuated several Afghan families from Ukraine to Qatar and “made a lot of promises” to help other evacuees. On March 7, the State Department contacted him to inquire about his safety and whereabouts.

“I told them that I was out of Ukraine and currently in Holland,” Noori said. “They said they would contact their supervisors to see if they could evacuate us or not. They haven’t contacted me for a week.”

The State Department did not respond to a question about the fate of Afghan evacuees fleeing Ukraine.

Khalil Khan contributed to this report.

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