The first group of Afghan evacuees landed in Kosovo on August 29 following a chaotic airport evacuation in the wake of the United States’ abrupt exit from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. These Afghans’ futures are unclear, as is their present situation. But one thing is clear: they aren’t being granted the right to move freely.
In fact, it is easier for an Afghan asylum seeker who arrived in Kosovo through the difficult Balkan route to move about the country. Once in Kosovo such an asylum seeker can request asylum, with or without identification. They will be offered basic amenities, an identification card, and, notably, the freedom to move in and out of the asylum housing complex.
But this is not the case for the approximately 1,000 Afghans brought by NATO into Kosovo as part of an international effort to offer safe haven to thousands who fear persecution after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
On August 16 Kosovo’s government approved a decision offering Afghan evacuees — largely U.S. visa applicants, former NATO contractors and their families — temporary protection, a form of immediate protection different from the refugee status recognized in the Law on Asylum. Persons under temporary protection enjoy clearly defined rights, such as the right to schooling, healthcare and freedom of movement.
The government’s decision specifies that freedom of movement may be restricted if considered necessary, and that a verification process will be put in place for issues of national security.
Since arriving, the evacuees have been housed at two camps referred to as Camp Bechtel and Camp Liya, located on the premises of the Bechtel Enka company and inside the U.S. military base Bondsteel. NATO’s international command is running Camp Bechtel and the U.S. is running Camp Liya inside Bondsteel.
As of yet, there has been no public information provided about the living conditions of these Afghan evacuees, a contrast to other countries, including some in the region, where journalists have been granted access to speak directly to arriving refugees.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs has declined to answer K2.0’s questions on the matter, while the minister of Internal Affairs, Xhelal Sveçla, gave few details during a recent press conference. When asked about the evacuees’ freedom of movement, Sveçla said that movement outside the camp would be organized only if necessary, noting apparent security concerns.
Neither NATO nor the Ministry of Internal Affairs have granted media access to the Afghan evacuees’ living conditions, while the government of Kosovo has not formally asked international organizations working in this field to assist.
The government insists that the U.S. and NATO have promised a quick operation with Kosovo only functioning as a transit country. NATO spokesperson Jason Salata said that “Camp Bechtel is a temporary lodging until they identify follow-on resettlement options.”
A first group of 117 NATO-affiliated Afghan evacuees departed Camp Bechtel for the UK on September 16.
Government spokesperson Perparim Kryeziu told K2.0 that Kosovo’s legal framework guarantees freedom of movement, but he noted it also foresees specific cases where restrictions are allowed.
“At the moment, we are in the process of providing Afghan citizens with all necessary documents,” said Kryeziu. “Due to this and also taking into consideration their own safety for the moment they are free to move within their hosting facilities. However, we expect them to have the opportunity to move freely outside these facilities in the near future following the finalization of documents and other needed administrative procedures.”
The law on asylum specifies cases in which freedom of movement can be restricted for persons under international protection. It also says that each individual must be given the right to complain about their restriction of movement, and in the case of children, it also states that detention should be only a last measure.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo agreed to respond to K2.0’s questions on the issue only after specifically designated “U.S.-affiliated” evacuees arrived on September 13.
The embassy spokesperson said that “to ensure the health and safety of both Afghan guests and Kosovan hosts, the Government of Kosovo has stated that Afghans being temporarily hosted at Camp Liya must remain within the boundaries of the facility while U.S. interagency teams work to complete processing for their eventual admission to the United States or resettlement in a third country.”
The spokesperson also said that U.S. law enforcement members arrived in Kosovo to screen and vet all U.S.-affiliated Afghan “travelers” before they are allowed into the United States.
According to the embassy spokesperson, who referred to the Afghans as travelers, all Afghans currently hosted at Camp Liya have already transited through other third countries since leaving Afghanistan, where they received initial biometric and medical screenings.
Who’s in charge?
Human rights experts are having difficulty accessing knowledge about the condition of Afghan evacuees in Kosovo.
Jelena Sesar, Amnesty International’s researcher for the Balkans and the EU, said that the lack of information about the status of the facilities or the management of the camps makes it hard to monitor any potential human rights violations.
“Under normal circumstances, the temporary protection status would guarantee people full freedom of movement on the territory of Kosovo, food, clothes, access to health and education, and a range of other support services,” said Sesar. “This does not seem to be the case here. Afghan nationals in Bechtel-Enka and Bondsteel are not allowed to go out and media and humanitarian organizations do not seem to have access to the camps.”
While the government of Kosovo created the legal framework for temporary protection, the outsized role of NATO and the U.S. in the management of camps and processing of Afghans makes it unclear what role, if any, the government of Kosovo has in activities occurring within its own borders.
“If these Afghan families are to remain in Kosovo until their Special Immigrant Visas are processed, which can take a very long time for some applicants, it is essential that Kosovo’s authorities assume full responsibility for the management of the camps and ensure that the protection needs of the people there are fully met, as required by law,” Sesar said.
“This entails full freedom of movement and access to health, education and other support, as well as access to asylum procedures in Kosovo,” she said. “If the current approach doesn’t change, these people would be subjected to an indefinite confinement and a de-facto detention, which would be contrary to Kosovo’s and international law.”
In early September the Associated Press, citing an anonymous U.S. government source, reported that Kosovo has agreed to take in Afghans who fail to clear initial rounds of screening and host them for up to a year, raising questions about potential reasons behind restrictions on evacuees’ freedom of movement.
The temporary protection provided by Kosovo has a limit of one year with the possibility of extension, according to the Law on Asylum.
The AP’s reporting shows the conditions established at other transit sites like in Germany or Italy, where the authorities are given a two week deadline to complete the verification and processing of evacuees.
According to the government source the AP spoke to, transferring Afghans to Kosovo who do not pass the initial screening is a response to potential gaps in security that may have occurred during the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan.
There is a rising use of transit countries in the asylum process. Countries like the United Kingdom and Denmark proposed legislation to send asylum seekers to third countries while their applications are processed, something that human rights advocates and international organizations like the United Nations have criticized.
The evacuations out of the Kabul airport were chaotic and deadly, leaving the world with terrible images, such as the footage of bodies plummeting from the sky after people attempted to cling to the exterior of a U.S. military plane. In the chaos of the last days of the evacuation, two suicide bombers and gunmen at the airport led to the deaths of 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.
The people who made it onto the planes in the midst of this chaos are considered the lucky ones. But many of those who were evacuated were already in the process of migrating to the U.S.
The Afghan evacuees awaiting entry into the U.S. and other affiliated countries are largely people who had already started the Special Immigrant Visa process as well as applicants for a special U.S. refugee program. They are former contractors who worked with international governments as well as in vulnerable professions such as journalists, as well as these peoples’ families.
Neither NATO nor the government of Kosovo have responded to K2.0’s questions submitted about the AP’s report.
The U.S. Embassy in Kosovo published a statement saying that such reports may leave people with the “incorrect impression” that the U.S. is sending to Kosovo individuals they deem inadmissible. The statement insists, “this is not the case,” and says that American officials in Kosovo are assisting in the processing of applicants who may require additional paperwork in order to clarify “an applicant’s identity, employment history or other ties to the United States.”
“Afghan travelers being temporarily hosted at Camp Liya are in the process of having their paperwork and eligibilities confirmed for eventual admission to the United States or resettlement to a third country,” a U.S. embassy spokesperson told K2.0. “None have been deemed inadmissible to the United States because their cases are still being processed.”
On the matter of how long the process may take, the spokesperson said that “under the agreement with the Government of Kosovo, U.S.-affiliated Afghan travelers may shelter at Camp Liya for up to a year while their cases are being processed for eventual admission to the United States or resettlement in a third country. However, individuals may be approved for travel to the United States sooner, as soon as their processing is complete.”
On September 10, the minister of Internal Affairs met with representatives of international organizations who could provide assistance, but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration have not yet received a formal request to assist in the operation.
The IOM and UNHCR in Kosovo could only tell K2.0 that they are monitoring the situation closely. Sources from these organizations said that they have little information about the Afghan evacuees and remain on standby awaiting a request for assistance from the government.
According to Amnesty International’s Sesar, “the inaccessibility of the camps to independent and public scrutiny raises concerns about the conditions in these facilities as well as the commitment to genuinely assist Afghans who had to flee their country.”
The situation is no clearer for Jeff Crisp, international migration expert from the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University. “The rapid evacuation from Kabul has certainly left many questions unanswered,” said Crisp via email to K2.0, who offered a number of questions that can be used to hold institutions accountable.
“How were decisions made with respect to the temporary locations to which they have been sent? What will happen to any refugees who are ‘screened out’ by the U.S., is there a risk that they could become stateless, or be sent back to Afghanistan?”
The long war in Afghanistan has displaced an enormous number of people. It is estimated by UNHCR that only in the first half of 2021 more than half a million people were newly displaced in Afghanistan, while 3 million were displaced in 2020.
Afghans have often taken the long refugee journey far into Europe, across the Balkans. Despite not being a key country on the Balkan refugee route, Kosovo registered 31 Afghan asylum seekers in the first half of 2021, while many others pass through unnoticed and uncounted, continuing their journey to seek asylum further on in other European countries.
After the U.S. exit from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic published an advisory, asking members and cooperative third countries to stop any forced returns for Afghans who saw their asylum requests rejected and had not yet been deported, and asked states to offer asylum to Afghans forced to flee and to cooperate in protecting their rights.