After Chaotic Evacuation, Afghans in the Netherlands Struggle to Find Stability

NIJMEGEN, the Netherlands — The email came at 3 a.m., giving Nematullah Khosh Ahmadi and his wife, Masouma Ebrahimi, three hours to decide whether to get on an evacuation flight to the Netherlands and leave Afghanistan, their homeland, perhaps never to return.

Living under Taliban rule was not an option for the couple, who are filmmakers who had long documented the violence that the extremist group had inflicted on Afghanistan. But that did not make the decision any less heart-wrenching, they said. They packed up their important documents, a video camera and a pair of gloves for their infant daughter — and they fled.

Mr. Ahmadi and Ms. Ebrahimi, who were among roughly 2,000 Afghans evacuated to the Netherlands this summer, in the frantic weeks before the United States left Afghanistan, are now living in a temporary camp deep in a forest near the eastern town of Nijmegen. The camp houses about 1,000 evacuees, who live in shared tents that allow little privacy and, although heated, cannot keep out the winter cold.

The evacuees recently heard that they would be moving in coming weeks, but for many, their hopes for more solid housing appeared to be dimming given a shortage of more permanent social housing for poor Dutch and refugees alike.

The Dutch government said that all residents of the Nijmegen camp would be moved to different refugee centers by the end of January, but an official from the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers said those could include structures like containers, tents and even boats.

All of the Afghans evacuated in August have already received permits to stay, sparing them the bureaucratic headaches they endure in some other countries. But the uncertainty about housing has been extremely destabilizing for the Afghans in the camp, who, while grateful to the Netherlands for having taken them in, have been struggling to reconcile themselves with their new lives.

“If you take a tree and plant it somewhere else, it will stay alive, but it will not give fruit,” Mr. Ahmadi said. “My generation had great dreams about changing our country for the better. I never wanted to leave.”

Nematullah Khosh Ahmadi and his wife, Masouma Ebrahimi, are among some 2,000 Afghans who were evacuated to the Netherlands this summer. Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Mr. Ahmadi and Ms. Ebrahimi arrived in the Netherlands at a time when it was embroiled in an increasingly heated debate about immigration. The nation’s toughened stance on the issue contributed to the chaotic evacuation of people from Afghanistan when the Taliban took over in mid-August, critics said, and has made bringing in additional Afghans more difficult.

In the Netherlands, as elsewhere in Europe, politicians fear a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis, when more than a million people, mainly from war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan, sought asylum in the European Union, setting off a populist backlash.

The Dutch government has been accused of failing to move quickly enough to evacuate many Afghans eligible for asylum, and at first was focusing only on interpreters who had worked with the Dutch military as part of the NATO presence in Afghanistan.

Both the foreign and defense ministers resigned after coming under pressure over the issue in Parliament, and the Dutch government eventually moved in the last days before the U.S. withdrawal to evacuate some Afghans who worked in sensitive fields, including journalists.

But in October, in a sign of a hardening stance on asylum seekers as voters increasingly turn toward far-right parties opposed to more immigration, the Dutch government tightened the criteria for those still in Afghanistan, leaving hundreds in limbo.

People hoping to flee Afghanistan gathered in August outside the international airport in Kabul.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Since September, only “a few hundred” of the 2,100 eligible Afghans have been evacuated, according to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For many people in the Netherlands, the situation brought back the trauma of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995, when Dutch peacekeepers failed to protect Muslim men from Bosnian Serb militias. About 8,000 people were killed.

“Many people said, ‘We are doing it again,’” said Lenie van Goor of the Nijmegen chapter of the Dutch Refugee Council, a charity. “Those Afghans are our responsibility.”

Ahmad Khalid Nawabi, who worked as a technology specialist with the European Union’s police mission in Afghanistan, said one of his former colleagues from the mission was killed by the Taliban in October. An interpreter, who was on the Dutch evacuation list, was also killed in October, according to news media reports.

“Although not officially confirmed, it is plausible that the interpreter in question has been killed,” three government ministers wrote in a recent letter to lawmakers, saying it was impossible to determine those responsible.

Ahmad Khalid Nawabi, who worked with the European Union’s police mission in Afghanistan, has for three months been in the Dutch camp in Nijmegen, where he said conditions were difficult.Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Kati Piri, an opposition lawmaker who has called for more Afghans to be evacuated to the Netherlands, called the Dutch response “shameful,” saying that the lists of people approved to get on flights were drafted chaotically and late.

“The Dutch government was extremely careful not to open the doors to too many Afghans,” she said.

Sigrid Kaag, who was the Dutch foreign minister at the time of evacuation but resigned in September, defended the government’s actions to Parliament. But she acknowledged that the Netherlands and other nations had had a “blind spot” in underestimating how quickly Afghanistan would collapse.

According to the European Commission, European Union nations have so far evacuated 28,000 Afghans and have committed to taking in 40,000 more. The Netherlands pledged to admit 3,159 Afghans, but according to a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, this includes about 2,000 already evacuated.

A road leading to the entrance of the camp in Nijmegen. It houses around 1,000 evacuees, who live in shared tents.Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Amnesty International warned in a recent report that Afghans faced “formidable obstacles to seeking safety outside the country,” and that if they managed to flee, they would be subject to illegal pushbacks, detention and deportation in Europe and Central Asia.

While all Afghan evacuees received their permits to stay, other Afghan asylum seekers, who arrived in the Netherlands earlier or without authorization, are left in “a legal limbo,” said Wil Eikelboom, an asylum lawyer.

Their asylum requests have effectively been on hold since this summer. “Usual waiting time for a decision is 18 to 24 months,” Mr. Eikelboom said. “I have clients who are very frustrated about this.” Those awaiting decisions are housed in reception centers run by a government agency.

“Those Afghans are our responsibility,” said Lenie van Goor from the Nijmegen chapter of the Dutch Refugee Council, a charity.Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

For Afghans evacuated to the Netherlands, the wait for housing has been difficult.

Migrants are usually provided with accommodation within 14 weeks of being approved as refugees, said Sonja Kloppenburg, the spokeswoman of the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers. But because of a housing shortage, it is unlikely that the Afghan evacuees will be able to find permanent homes anytime soon.

The Interior Ministry says it does not know how long the Afghan evacuees will have to wait because 12,000 refugees from various countries are currently in line for homes.

The authorities in Nijmegen have, however, managed to get Afghan children from the Nijmegen camp into local schools. About 300 Afghans ages 5 to 11 started school in the last week of October. With the help of retired teachers, they are learning Dutch.

“It is going to be a long road for me to rebuild my life,” said Fardin, 40, a photographer from Kabul who asked to be identified only by his first name, and whose son Subhanallah was attending the local school. “But I am hoping this will be an opportunity for my son.”

Afghan children attending a school in Nijmegen.Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Subhanallah, 8, seems ready to embrace the future in the Netherlands.

When asked about his dream job, he said he wanted to one day be the country’s leader.

Mr. Nawabi, who worked with the E.U. police mission, said this month that he would be taking an important step in his new life in the Netherlands and would be moving to a house in Nijmegen in late December.

“I just got lucky, and my faith might have helped,” he said. “But not everyone has a house.”

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