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The U.S. military is gone; the airport is shut down. Can Afghans escape by land?

WASHINGTON — With the U.S. military now out of Afghanistan, the task of evacuating tens of thousands of Afghan allies left behind falls to nongovernmental organizations and international aid groups — who say they are unable to tell them where to go next, according to several groups who spoke to NBC News.

Kabul’s airport has been the center for evacuations, but with commercial flights stopped, sights have shifted to Afghanistan’s land borders. But the odds that Afghans will reach one of those borders without Taliban interference, be allowed to cross into a neighboring country and then be resettled in the U.S. are daunting.

“My sense of the issue is that the borders are incredibly crowded. There is a lot of violence. Some are open for visa holders, and others are not. Some have gotten into Pakistan. A lot have not,” said Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which helps refugees after they have left the country and are looking for legal assistance to resettle in the U.S.

As a result of the confusion, many organizations are telling Afghan employees and others looking to evacuate to shelter in place until they have more information, according to three nongovernmental organizations that operate in Afghanistan.

Aug. 30, 202102:27

“Right now we’re telling them to find somewhere safe and stay there. We don’t know what’s happening at the border,” said Chris Purdy, project manager of the Veterans for American Ideals program at Human Rights First.

Reports of which borders may be safe to cross appear to be mixed. And the U.N.’s main refugee agency says there is no evidence so far that a major wave of refugees is fleeing across the land borders.

“We have not seen a large-scale flow of people out of Afghanistan. We know that could change,” said Chris Boian, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.

There were indications that more Afghans were crossing the borders with Iran and Pakistan, but it was unclear whether they were seeking asylum, he said.

Several thousand more Afghans have traveled across the heavily used Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossing of Spin Boldak, according to UNHCR observers on the ground, Boian said.

Bilal Askaryar, communications director of Welcome With Dignity, a coalition of immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations, said there have been reports of the Taliban’s stopping Afghans on the road to land borders. While Afghans were once eager to prove their affiliation with the U.S. for chances to board evacuation flights before the U.S. military left, many are now told to hide or to destroy those documents when they encounter the Taliban at checkpoints.

“They may now have a target on them rather than a ticket out,” Askaryar said.

There is also growing frustration with the Biden administration for leaving behind what are estimated to be tens of thousands of Afghan Special Interest Visa holders and applicants who helped the two-decade U.S. military effort in the country, along with their families.

The time for recrimination will come, but right now we just have to get people out,” said a leader of a nongovernmental organization working to evacuate Afghans, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Aug. 30, 202104:56

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, called on Afghanistan’s neighboring countries Monday to help absorb what could be a large number of refugees.

“Some Afghans will inevitably need to seek safety across the country’s borders. They must be able to exercise their right to seek international protection, and borders must be kept open for them for this purpose,” Grandi said. “Those countries that neighbor Afghanistan who have been taking in refugees for decades need greater support.”

Government spokespeople for the neighboring countries of Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan did not respond to requests for comment about whether they would welcome Afghan refugees.

The five countries met last week to discuss the situation, but they have so far made no commitments about how those fleeing the country would be treated. Iran and Pakistan have historically taken in millions of Afghan refugees over four decades, according to the U.N., many of whom still live in those countries.

Afghanistan also shares a small, remote stretch of border with China, which was not part of the meeting. A spokesperson for the Chinese government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.N. Security Council voted Thursday to set out minimum expectations of the Taliban, including that they honor their “stated commitments to ensure safe passage” for all trying to leave.

Yasmine Salam contributed.

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