War Drives Thousands of Afghan Refugees Out of Ukraine

Three weeks ago, Haseeb Noori became a refugee — for a second time.

The Afghan lawyer, 45, was living with his wife and five children at a makeshift refugee camp near the Ukrainian-Slovak border when Russian bombs started falling.

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

Thousands were dashing 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 out of Kabul last year.

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

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

Mass migration

The war has forced more than 3 million people out of the country, the largest mass migration in Europe since World War II. Among them were more than 162,000 foreign nationals who were living in Ukraine, according to 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 residency rights, health insurance, education and other benefits across the 27-member bloc.

The benefits are applicable to refugees and other permanent residents of Ukraine. But the EU directive is carried out differently by different countries, and it’s not clear how many Afghan escapees from Ukraine are entitled to temporary protection.

Before war broke out in Ukraine, there were more than 5,000 Afghans living in Ukraine, according to Nigara Mirdad, a political counselor at the Afghan Embassy in Warsaw.

While some escaped to Romania and Ukraine’s other neighbors, the majority — about 3,000 Afghans — have crossed into Poland, according to Mirdad.

Unable to move to other European countries, some have remained in Poland.

Only in the movies

‘Najibullah Mohammad Hafiz was two weeks into his second semester at Kharkiv Medical University when fighting erupted. Two days later, the 20-year-old left Kharkiv on a five-day, 1,100-kilometer-plus perilous trek on foot and by car and train to the Polish border.

“By my count, we walked for 67 kilometers to get to the Polish border,” Hafiz said.  “What we experienced, you can only see in movies. I never imagined it would happen in real life.”

With his student documents left behind in Kharkiv, Hafiz is staying put.

“It’s not clear how long we’re staying here, what’s going to happen,” he said.

Mirdad, the counselor at the Afghan Embassy in Warsaw, said most Afghans spend a day or two in Poland before moving to Western European countries, primarily 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 Ukrainian permanent residency are issued two-year residency permits by German authorities.

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

Uncertainty

But not every Afghan with Ukrainian residency has received benefits under the new European Union temporary protection scheme. Mohammad Isa, who said he had a five-year residency 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’s going to 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 his family as refugees.

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

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

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

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

Khalil Khan contributed to this report.

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