UN Afghanistan Staffers Feel Abandoned As Taliban Surges
As the Taliban swept to power last week, Afghans working for the United Nations watched as many of their foreign colleagues got on planes to leave the country.
But their own increasingly desperate pleas for help getting out — or at least for somewhere safe to stay if the Taliban targets them for their work for an international organization — are being ignored, according to interviews and emails seen by BuzzFeed News.
Angry current and former staffers said the UN, which has operated in Afghanistan since 2002, seemed to have no plan for its staff of thousands of Afghan nationals to leave the country and has given them few alternatives but to hunker down at home while militants may be searching for them.
In phone calls and texts, four Afghan nationals who work for the UN told BuzzFeed News the UN has not offered them secure housing in Kabul, leaving some seeking shelter with relatives. They pointed out that Afghan nationals who work for the UN take on far greater risks in the country for less pay than their international colleagues, and their work could put them in harm’s way. Reuters reported on Tuesday that Taliban fighters had ransacked multiple UN compounds since its stunning sweep to power last week.
“They are very, very visible in communities,” said a former international UN staffer who requested anonymity. “The Taliban know exactly who these people are.”
The UN did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the secretary-general, said 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 added that the UN is doing its “utmost” for national staff and their families. “There are all sorts of administrative hurdles that have to be negotiated and discussed,” Dujarric said. “But the national staff is very much on the forefront of what we are trying to do every day.”
The organization has about 300 international staff members and 3,000 Afghan national staff in Afghanistan, working for the UN’s mission in the country as well as agencies such as the UN Development Program and UN Women. The organization said on Aug. 18 that about 100 of those international staff would temporarily leave for Kazakhstan.
The UN-focused news site PassBlue reported on Friday that Afghan nationals working for the organization felt “alone and petrified.” New details in this story about Afghan staffers pleading to no avail for help hiding from the Taliban — even as one heard word that militants were in his neighborhood asking where he was — raise further questions about whether the UN adequately planned to protect local employees as the Taliban ramped up their military offensive against the Afghan government starting in May.
“They’ve had months to prepare for this,” the former international staffer said.
One Afghan staffer, who works in the operations department of a UN agency, said he and his colleagues repeatedly brought up the issue of evacuations in the chat box of a Zoom meeting with colleagues and superiors last week, but received no response. (BuzzFeed News is withholding identifying details of all four Afghan staffers interviewed for this article to avoid endangering them.)
“They usually read the chat box,” he said. “This time they were seeing the chats but trying to change the topic and get everything finished.”
The staffer said he had asked his superiors whether the UN would help him and other Afghan staff who hold valid international visas. But he was told that the organization could try only to get him out, forcing him to leave his wife and young child behind.
“How does this make sense?” he said. “How can I leave my family behind me when I leave the country? It’s not acceptable for me or for the national staff — it’s against humanitarian values, it’s against human values.”
Other Afghan staff members described similar meetings.
“They’re just playing a game with us. Each week there’s a meeting where they say they’re ‘trying our best,’” said another Afghan staffer for the UN Development Project who works on gender equality. “What kind of trying is this? If small embassies can evacuate staff, why can’t the UN?”
It’s unclear how many UN international staff have been moved out of Afghanistan, but the four staffers told BuzzFeed News that high-level international staff had been evacuated and that it seemed that it was mainly Afghans left.
Liam McDowall, a spokesperson for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), told PassBlue that the UN was pushing other countries to support visa applications and temporary residence requests from Afghan staff members and their families.
Unama did not respond to calls or emails for this article.
Staffers interviewed by BuzzFeed News also said UN officials had told them they were campaigning for visas so they could relocate to other countries, but some said they felt it was too little, too late.
“This is not the time for visas,” said one Afghan staffer who works with UNDP. “We have UN identity cards, they can discuss with other countries to do an immediate evacuation.”
One UN worker who has urged the UN to evacuate its female Afghan employees out of concern about the Taliban’s abuses of women told BuzzFeed News she had requested help for Afghan staffers in town hall meetings and through local and global staff associations.
“No one heard us,” she said. “No one is listening.”
“They told us we have to ‘stay and deliver,’” she added, quoting a UN slogan about its presence in Afghanistan.
The UN reportedly moved some of its Afghan staff to Kabul to reduce their risk but has not put those people 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 directly with Afghan staffers.
The World Bank evacuated all of its Afghan-based staff, Reuters reported on Aug. 20.
A group of UN unions and staff associations began a petition calling for the UN secretary-general to take “all necessary measures” including evacuation to protect staff. It has nearly 5,300 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
“We are supposed to protect human rights of all, and now we are leaving our own to fend for themselves,” said Arora Akanksha, a UN auditor who is campaigning to be the next secretary-general. “Shame on the UN and its leadership.”
“This whole ‘stay and deliver’ message that the UN is promoting, we should ask ourselves who is staying?” she added.
A Unama staffer who said he is in hiding in a remote location told BuzzFeed News Taliban militants were asking his neighbors about his whereabouts. He had worked on sensitive political projects, and he believes he could be targeted.
“All the people here know I am working with Unama,” he said. “I am high profile.”
He told BuzzFeed News he asked his department to move him to a safer location where militants would have a tougher time identifying him by speaking to locals, days before Kabul fell to the Taliban. A few days later, after the militant group had already seized power, a reply came advising him to hide at home, according to emails he shared with BuzzFeed News.
“I’m like a detainee,” he said. “I cannot go outside, I cannot see anyone. How long can I stay here like this?”