The interpreters who say they have been left for dead in Afghanistan as U.S. and U.K. troops pull out after 20-year war

A soldier walks with his arm older the shoulder of his interpreter
A U.S. soldier walks with the unit’s Afghan interpreter in Laghman province in 2014.

  • Thousands of Afghans signed on to work with U.S. forces during the 20-year war, including many who risked their lives and being branded as traitors.
  • As the U.S. withdraws the last of its troops, thousands of Afghan interpreters say they fear for their lives.
  • Some war-time interpreters say they have been blocked from seeking asylum even though they face reprisals from the Taliban.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Aazar had just turned 18 back in 2013, when he signed up to work with Western forces in Afghanistan, perhaps not fully understanding that it would place a clear target on his back.

For 11 months, Aazar – a pseudonym we are using to protect his identity – worked as an interpreter for U.K. troops in Helmand Province. But when he later sought asylum, believing he could fall prey to a vengeful Taliban that saw interpreters as traitors, Aazar learned he was ineligible because the asylum threshold required that Afghan interpreters had worked for at least one year. Aazar fell shy of that by a single month.

He managed to find refuge in New Delhi, India, but he still holds out hope of getting to the U.K. He says the asylum rule is arbitrary and unfair. “If I work one day, [the Taliban] will cut my head,” Aazar said in an interview. “If I work 10 years, they will cut my head.”

Since the start of the US-led war two decades ago, the Taliban has targeted anyone it sees as “stooges” or collaborators. People like Aazar.

Now, as the last American and Western troops withdraw from Afghanistan – President Joe Biden set a deadline of Sept. 11 – Afghanistan’s security forces will soon be on their own.

Taliban fighters have meanwhile taken almost 20 districts over the past two weeks and staged increasingly audacious attacks across the country. A spate of targeted assassinations have killed dozens of journalists, rights workers, academics, religious leaders and other prominent figures over the last year. The majority of these attacks have gone unclaimed, but the Kabul government believes the Taliban are behind most, if not all, of these killings.

Prince Harry, seen in the Afghan desert, points his arm as three men look on.
Prince Harry speaks with two men in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2008 with the help of an Afghan interpreter.

Interpreters fear that they could fall victim to such killings, and the effort to evacuate Locally Employed Staff, or LECs, who worked with foreign forces, has grown increasingly desperate.

In an unusual statement released earlier this month, the Taliban said that Afghans who had committed “treason against Islam and the country” would be left alone as long as they express remorse, and could “return to their normal lives.”

Sayed Jalal Shajjan, a Kabul-based researcher who has been studying the fate of Afghans who worked with foreign forces, says the statement will do little to reassure any of the Afghans who fear for their lives. “It’s not a clear statement. It just further problematizes everything. How exactly should someone show remorse, whom should they approach, and how would they provide adequate proof? A statement alone is not a guarantee.”

On June 4, a bipartisan group of US representatives, many of them veterans, sent a letter to President Biden, calling for the immediate evacuation of all Afghans who worked with American forces to the US territory of Guam, where their asylum applications could be processed in safety.

“If we fail to protect our allies in Afghanistan, it will have a lasting impact on our future partnerships and global reputation,” the letter concluded.

Around 10 men hold signs about the safety of Afghan interpreters in front of the U.S. embassy
Former Afghan interpreters protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul on June 25, 2021.

Earlier this week, Biden said, “Those [Afghans] who helped us are not going to be left behind,” but offered few details as to how he would evacuate thousands of people in a two-and-a-half month period.

In April, the British government introduced a new policy making it much quicker, and easier, for former interpreters to claim asylum. But, again, not everyone is eligible.

Similar cracks exist in the US asylum scheme. Only Afghans who served with American forces for at least two years can apply, leaving many out in the cold.

Last month, a number of global charities, led by the International Refugee Assistance project, released a joint statement. “With the ongoing withdrawal, NATO member states must act urgently to guarantee the safety of present and past Afghan locally engaged civilians,” it read. “Time is running out.”

Time, is of course not on their side. As Shajjan, the researcher, points out, the process of vetting and physically evacuating people usually takes up to nine months.

“That amount of time is no longer feasible.”

“Was he working with the infidels?”

Afghanistan has been plagued by conflict since the communist coup d’etat of 1978. Four decades of war and violence have left a permanent imprint of millions of Afghans who, like Aazar, were born into war.

By 2001, the country, and its citizens had already seen a communist coup, Soviet occupation, a jihad, civil war and five years of Taliban rule. Then, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a coalition of 40 nations, including the UK, Germany and Australia, invaded the country to topple the Taliban, whom they accused of harboring Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of al-Qaeda.

A soldier, accompanied by an interpreter, speaks to a number of men, seated on the ground.
With the help of an interpreter, a U.S. soldier in 2002 speaks to locals about hidden weapons and equipment left by the Taliban.

In 2014, the vast majority of foreign forces withdrew from the country and those that remained moved from a combat role to an advisory one. Since then, more than 26,000 Afghans, and their families, have been granted asylum in the US. But at least 18,000 LECs who worked with the Americans remain in Afghanistan.

The group No One Left Behind says it over 300 interpreters and their family members have been killed because they worked with U.S. forces.

It was around that time that Aazar managed to leave the country.

While still in Helmand Province, he got worrying news from his father back home in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. A distant cousin, who was believed to be linked to the Taliban, visited the family home, claiming he had seen Aazar on the frontline. “He came to my father, and he was asking, where is your son?” Aazar recalled. “Is he alive or dead? Was he working with the infidels?”

Fearing for his life and that of his family, Aazar resigned his post with the U.K. forces and returned to Kabul, where he worked briefly as an English teacher. “I was very afraid,” he said. “I would not go directly to my home. I would change my way. I would be looking back to see if they were following me.”

Soldiers kneel with guns drawn while an elderly Afghan men speaks to a US soldier and his interpreter.
An elderly man is questioned through an interpreter by US soldiers during a morning operation in 2012.

After a close friend who had worked as an interpreter was found dead, Aazar said he fled the country.

Shajjan, the Kabul-based researcher, says people like Aazar, most of whom were young men trying to provide money for their families, are easily identifiable by the Taliban.

“It’s the nature of their work, they are the ones standing next to the foreign troops and telling them everything that’s being said. They are highly visible and extremely vulnerable,” said Shajjan.

Adding to the dangers is the fact that these translators were also present – though their faces were concealed with masks – during the highly controversial night raids into people’s homes and the interrogations conducted by foreign forces.

“All these activities on behalf of the foreign forces made them easily recognizable to people in the community and even easier to pick out and track by the Taliban,” Shajjan said.

“Falling through the cracks”

As a Muslim refugee in India, Aazar’s position has been precarious, even desperate.

Before the pandemic hit, Aazar was working 18 hours a day in a restaurant, sometimes sleeping on tables between shifts. He says he is often underpaid for his work but he has no one to complain to. To Aazar, it all seems like a pitiful reward for his frontline service.

“I’m not blaming the Indian people,” he says. “But it’s very hard… You can’t even get a home, landlords won’t rent to you, because you are a refugee… you can’t get jobs, because you are a refugee.”

An Afghan man, wearing white, speaks to a crowd of US soldiers
Village elders speak with a U.S. Marine through an interpreter in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan in 2008.

“I haven’t seen my family – my father, brother, mother, sister – in eight years,” he said.

In the meantime, he is getting support from the Sulha Alliance, a group founded by U.K. veterans of the Afghan war. Its representatives confirmed elements of Aazar’s story.

Dr. Sara de Jong, a professor of politics at the University of York and one of the group’s founding members, said too many LECs have “fallen through the cracks of the relocation policy.”

“The fact that the government failed to have an appropriate policy in place earlier cannot be a reason to exclude these guys,” she said.

But Aazar could be one of the lucky ones.

Farwan – also a pseudonym – is another LEC working with the Sulha Alliance, and he is still in Afghanistan. “I cannot go outside,” he said in an interview, “because if I go outside, I will be targeted by my tribe, targeted by the Taliban; I will be killed.” His voice is half a whisper over the phone.

Farwan was also working in Helmand, and he was dismissed from the military for fighting with a fellow translator. Because of this disciplinary breach he’s not able to claim asylum in the UK.

A helicopter flies overhead as soldiers run with their full gear in the desert.
U.S. and Afghan soldiers during an operation in Paktika province in 2012.

“I was an interpreter in a patrol base,” he says “I had a fight, one fight, with the other interpreter… then they told me my contract was terminated.”

Last month, near his home in Laghman Province, in eastern Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Forces managed to repel an attack by the Taliban, and Farwan said he lost his property.

The threats that sparked the war in Afghanistan remain, but methods of dealing with them have changed. Increasingly, the U.S. and other countries rely on local forces to combat extremists, instead helping to train and arm them. In Iraq and Syria, for example, troops from across the world trained local forces to fight the Islamic State.

But without relocation policies in place, the plight of local staff in Afghanistan is showing that working with the international community can have dire consequences.

“These are guys who have had to put bits of people in body bags,” Dr. de Jong said. “We also need to ensure that these people can build up a meaningful life. It’s not just about staying alive. It’s about the right to a life.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Fort Bliss: Biden administration responds to report of inhumane conditions for migrant children at emergency shelter in Texas

Activist defending the rights of migrants holds a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas, U.S, June 8, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
Activist defending the rights of migrants holds a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas, U.S, June 8, 2021.

  • In court filings, migrant children at a federal shelter in Texas complained of inhumane conditions.
  • Children said they were given rotten food and were unable to sleep in overcrowded tents.
  • The Biden administration said it is working to improve conditions.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Biden administration is defending its handling of migrant children seeking asylum following testimony this week from young people and federal employees alike alleging poor conditions at an emergency intake facility in Texas.

“We take our humanitarian mission and the well-being of children in our care seriously,” said a statement emailed to reporters on Wednesday by Sarah Lovenheim, assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

In court documents filed this week, migrant children suggested that commitment was lacking, complaining of severe depression caused at least in part by excruciating conditions at shelters such as the one at Fort Bliss, a US Army base in El Paso, Texas.

The facility was first used to house detained migrants during the Trump administration.

In response, HHS, which runs the site, says it has increased the number of case managers at such sites by 95%, from 909 to 1,776 as of May 21. At the same time, it has also reduced the number of children in detention at Fort Bliss, from around 5,000 to 1,500, and elsewhere: there are fewer than 15,000 children in HHS custody today, compared to nearly 23,000 at the end of April.

A 13-year-old girl from Honduras said she was placed on suicide watch after spending two months there.

“The food here is horrible,” she testified. “Yesterday we were given hamburgers but I couldn’t eat it because there was a foul odor coming from the bread.”

The child also described suffering insomnia due to the conditions, per the legal filing.

“It is really hard for me to sleep because my cot is right next to a light that stays on all night,” she said, adding that a request for sleeping pills had been denied due to her age. “For the past week or so I have only been sleeping during the day.”

In its statement, HHS insisted children are “receiving nutritionally-appropriate meals.”

“Our goal is to safely and expeditiously unite children with their parent or sponsor and we continue to improve and streamline this process,” it said.

Another 17-year-old girl at the same facility, however, described overcrowded conditions even with the decrease in the number of children there, with hundreds of girls sleeping under the same tent.

“A lot of the girls here cry a lot,” she testified. “A lot of them end up having to talk to someone because they have thoughts of cutting themselves.”

Federal officials, concerned about deteriorating mental health among the children, “banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers, and regular toothbrushes” inside of such tents, CBS News reported.

“They’ve gone from a small cage at Border Patrol to a larger cage at Fort Bliss,” a former employee there told the outlet. “It’s a juvenile detention facility.”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

Read the original article on Business Insider

The Trump administration took more than 3,900 kids from their parents. More than half remain separated.

GettyImages 1286008253
A volunteer with pro-immigration group Families Belong Together, attaches one of 600 teddy bears to a chainlink cage which ‘representing the children still separated as a result of U.S. immigration policies’ on the National Mall November 16, 2020 in Washington, DC.

  • A total of 3,913 migrant children were separated by the Trump administration, DHS said Tuesday.
  • Of them, just 1,786 have been reunited with their parents, the department said.
  • President Joe Biden has ordered DHS to reunite the remaining 2,127 children.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More than half of the nearly 4,000 children separated from their families by the Trump administration remain estranged from their parents, the Department of Homeland Security revealed in a new report on Tuesday.

As part of its effort to discourage Central Americans from exercising their legal right to seek asylum, the previous administration forced parents to choose: get deported as a family unit or leave the kids behind so that they can pursue their claims in the relative safety of the United States.

Still, as DHS’s Inspector General said in a May report, some 348 parents and children were separated against their apparent wishes.

Now a new report, from DHS’s Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families, shows the full impact of that separation policy, which the previous White House abandoned after a public outcry.

The task force, created by an executive order from President Joe Biden, identified 3,913 children as having been separated from their parents during the last administration. Of them, 1,786 “have already been reunified with their parent,” the report said.

That leaves 2,127 children who are still separated from their parents.

The report hints at how long it may take to find their parents, if they are indeed able to found back in their home countries – primarily Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In the previous 30 days, DHS said, the department was able to reunite just 7 children with their parents.

As CBS News reported, once reunited, families are granted access to mental health services and are eligible for “three years of protection from deportation to try to acquire work permits.”

But speaking to KQED, Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued over the family separation policy, said he believes that the number of parents who have not been found is actually lower than DHS suggests. According to the ACLU, the parents of 391 children have not been located.

“The other group are families who have been contacted by us, but were not reunited because the Trump administration only gave them two brutal choices: remain permanently separated from your child, or have your child come back to your home country and back to the very danger from which they fled,” Gelernt said.

Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, a nonprofit representing the Maya community in Nebraska, said it has been consulting with the DHS task force. It believes many of the remaining children come from indigenous communities in the Americas, complicating the reunification process as these communities are typically the most isolated and impoverished.

“The majority of the children still lost and not returned to their families are Maya,” the group said in a statement on Twitter, a fact it lamented was not acknowledged in the DHS report. “Indigenous erasure will only add further harm,” it said, noting the attacks on their rights in countries such as Guatemala is what drives them “to seek asylum and refugee status in the US.”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

Read the original article on Business Insider

What happened to the ‘border crisis’: Unaccompanied children are being released faster and detained less often

Unaccompanied immigrant minors US-Mexico border
Unaccompanied immigrant minors wait to be processed by Border Patrol agents after they crossed the Rio Grande into south Texas on April 29, 2021 in Roma, Texas.

  • On Tuesday, 281 children were apprehended at the border, nearly half the numbers seen in March.
  • Fewer than 500 kids are being held by US Customs and Border Protection, down from a high of 5,700.
  • “The Biden administration has successfully solved the issue of children in Border Patrol custody,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It was the first big political crisis of the Biden administration: unaccompanied children, fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, crossing the border and seeking asylum. The numbers weren’t far from what was seen the previous year, under President Donald Trump, but the surge was real – as was the inability of the federal government to process and shelter those coming in a timely, humane manner.

The political opposition saw an easy opportunity to score some points. Congressional delegations toured the Rio Grande, in flak jackets, eager to be seen investigating “the crisis at the border.” Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, told Fox News viewers it was in fact “the Biden crisis,” pointing to the new president’s policies on immigration for an increase in asylum-seekers that actually began last December, before he took office.

Two months later, most Republicans have moved on to other issues, like taxes and “cancel culture.” As of this week, fewer than 500 children are being held by US Customs and Border Protection at any given time, down from more than 5,700 in March. Instead of days in facilities that are objectively unfit for children, most are being transferred out in less than 24 hours.

“The Biden administration has successfully solved the issue of children in Border Patrol custody,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the nonpartisan American Immigration Council, told Insider. “But they’ve done that through these emergency influx shelters, which are not that much better, necessarily.”

The shelters that would normally hold children seeking asylum, at least until they could be placed with a guardian or sponsor, were already at two-thirds capacity in December 2020. It wasn’t until January 15, five days before Biden’s inauguration, that the Trump administration began looking for more space.

But that cannot be done overnight. It’s not just a physical space that is required, but people to staff them. And so it took until March for the Biden administration to announce it had successfully converted places like the convention center in Long Beach, California, into a temporary home for unaccompanied minors.

More than 20,600 children are now in the custody of the Health and Human Services Department, specifically its Office of Refugee Resettlement. This shift is welcomed by advocates; a convention center floor might be better than a Border Patrol jail, but no one would suggest it is ideal.

Now, though, the Biden administration is getting kids out of there faster too. In March, fewer than 300 children a day were being discharged into the custody of sponsors; in May, 775 children were released on a single day, a new record. And for nearly two weeks now, the number of children being released each day has exceeded the number who are freshly detained.

On Tuesday, for example, 281 children were apprehended and placed into CBP custody, according to data released by HHS and the Department of Homeland Security. More than twice as many – 559 – were discharged by HHS.

More than 80% of those children have a family member already living in the United States, with some 40% released into the custody of someone who is either a parent or a legal guardian, according to government figures. Over half will ultimately win their asylum cases, far more than the average.

Many also arrive at the border with someone related to them, Reichlin-Melnick noted: a grandparent, aunt, or uncle who is then taken from them. That is, they are not really “unaccompanied” at all. Here, he argues, there is a further opportunity to reduce the strain on HHS, and spare many of these children from having to spend weeks, without someone they know, in any form of state custody.

“That is a form of family separation that has been occurring for years and started before the Trump administration’s family separation policy,” he said, “and is continuing today.”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

Read the original article on Business Insider

Biden grants Temporary Protected Status to as many as 320,000 Venezuelans living in the US

GettyImages 1204098537
A man from Venezuela seeking asylum in the United States holds his daughter at the entrance to the Paso del Norte International Bridge after the news that the Migrant Protection Protocols program was halted on February 28, 2020, in Ciudad Juárez.

  • The Biden administration is granting Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans.
  • Venezuelans are the leading group of asylum-seekers. About 320,000 are eligible for TPS.
  • TPS protects recipients from the threat of deportation.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Venezuelans who have fled economic devastation and political repression will no longer have to fear deportation from the United States, the Biden administration announced Monday, fulfilling one of the president’s campaign promises.

An estimated 320,000 Venezuelans in the US are now eligible for Temporary Protected Status, as first reported by the Los Angeles Times. TPS is granted to nationals from countries where it would be unsafe to return.

Venezuela has been in an economic and political freefall since the collapse of oil prices in 2014, exacerbated by rank corruption and, since 2019, US sanctions on the country’s all-important petroleum sector. That has led to an exodus from the country – 5.4 million people, according to the United Nations, or nearly 20% of its population – with the vast majority settling elsewhere in South America, namely Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

But tens of thousands have also made it to the US. Fom fiscal years 2017 to 2019, the Department of Homeland Security reported that Venezuelans were by far the largest group of asylum-seekers, averaging more than 25,000 per year and exceeding the number from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, combined.

In its formal designation, DHS says Venezuelans are receiving protected status due to the “severe economic crisis” back home, as well as “a prolonged political crisis” sparked by President Nicolas Maduro’s disputed victory in the country’s 2018 election and effective dissolution of its democratically elected legislature.

To apply for TPS, Venezuelans will need to pay $135 in fees and another $410 for a work permit, The Miami Herald reported. Those who enter the US on or after March 8 are ineligible.

The announcement comes days after Colombia, home to nearly 2 million Venezuelan migrants, granted those refugees legal status for the next decade.

Juan Escalante, an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela and digital campaigns manager at FWD.us, which advocates for criminal justice and immigration reform, said he was relieved by the news.

“The chaos, turmoil, and political unrest that has consumed my native homeland of Venezuela is heartbreaking,” he said in a statement, “and the idea that more than 300,000 Venezuelans who have been living in and contributing to the US could be deported to a country where their lives and freedoms would be threatened is terrifying.”

While the last administration claimed to support Venezuelans, it continued to deport them back to a country that it publicly condemned as violent and authoritarian. It was only on January 19, a day before leaving office, that the former president offered legal protections to some 94,000 Venezuelans.

“This shows solidarity with the over 5 million Venezuelans that have fled the country,” Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, a DC think tank, told Insider. He urged the administration to “go even further,” however, and pressure its allies in South America to increase social services for the Venezuelan diaspora elsewhere.

“Far too many other countries have backtracked on their commitments to fleeing Venezuelans,” he said.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

Read the original article on Business Insider

Biden calls for accepting as many as 125,000 refugees per year – more than 8 times the number accepted under Trump

GettyImages 1230971774
US President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, DC, on February 4, 2021.

Declaring his intent to restore the United States’ “moral leadership,” President Joe Biden announced that he is raising the cap on the number of refugees the country to as many as 125,000 for the fiscal year that begins this fall.

According to the White House, Biden also intends to work with Congress on overriding the cap for this fiscal year, set at just 15,000 by his predecessor.

But actually hitting a higher target right away would be difficult, even without a pandemic. During the Trump years, more than a third of US resettlement offices were shuttered, with their accompanying staff let go, the Associated Press reported – capacity that will need to be restored before admissions can be ramped up.

The president acknowledged that in a speech at the US State Department on Thursday. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do,” Biden said. Accordingly, “I’m directing the State Department to consult with Congress about making a down payment on that commitment as soon as possible.”

While a major increase – and the highest cap since 1993 – the new ceiling of 125,000 refugees is still far below the number the US accepted years ago. In 1980, the US resettled more than 207,000 people fleeing violence, poverty, and oppression; in fiscal year 2020, that number fell to less than 12,000.

In President Barack Obama’s final year in office, the US accepted just under 85,000 refugees.

Building capacity to resettle refugees is not needed solely within the government itself. There are nine national agencies that work with the State Department to find homes for the displaced; they too have faced staff cuts in the wake of a diminishing need for their services.

“Rebuilding our nation’s significantly-dismantled refugee resettlement system will take a great deal of effort and advocacy,” Tim Breene, CEO of the Christian humanitarian group World Relief, said in a statement. He urged the Biden administration not to wait before accepting more refugees, calling on the president to lift the current year’s cap on admissions and scrap “other policies restricting access to asylum.”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

Read the original article on Business Insider

Over 1,300 asylum-seekers assaulted in Mexico while remaining there under Trump administration policy, new report says

2020 07 08T000000Z_1412688062_RC27PH97NZ7Y_RTRMADP_3_USA IMMIGRATION MEXICO.JPG
A migrant in the “Remain in Mexico” program talks to an immigration agent outside the premises of the National Migration Institute (INM) while waiting to renew her permission to stay legally in Mexico to wait for their immigration hearing in the U.S., in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 8, 2020.

  • Human Rights First, a US nonprofit, documented more than 1,300 attacks against asylum-seekers in Mexico since February 2019.
  • Thousands of asylum-seekers have been forced by the Trump administration to remain in Mexico while awaiting a hearing on their claims.
  • President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to immediately rescind the program.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

More than 1,300 people have been raped, kidnapped, or otherwise assaulted since February 2019, when the Trump administration began requiring asylum-seekers to wait out their claims in Mexico, according to a new report.

“Continuing to turn away and expel people seeking US refugee protection at the southern border is both a humanitarian disgrace and a legal travesty,” Kennji Kizuka, a researcher at Human Rights First, which put out the study, said Wednesday. “The Trump administration is flouting US laws and treaty obligations to protect refugees, and weaponizing the pandemic to block and expel people seeking safety in the United States.”

But Kizuka told Business Insider that the report from Human Rights First understates the problem, noting that assaults against those deported under a more recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention order have not actually been included in the count, which is limited to those expelled under the “Remain in Mexico” program. Due to that program, 23,000 people are currently waiting, in Mexico, to hear if their fears of violence will be sufficient to gain asylum in the US.

In March, the CDC issued an order effectively denying the right to seek asylum – an order that CBS News reported came only after intense lobbying from the White House – the US has expelled over 260,000 migrants, including at least 8,800 unaccompanied children, per Human Rights First (the ACLU estimates the number was more like 14,000 by November). 

And the Trump administration has continued deporting kids even after a court order explicitly demanding that it stop, a US judge having ruled in November that the expulsions violate migrants’ right to due process; dozens have been sent back to Mexico anyway.

“This is what the Trump administration is doing to migrants in the name of stopping the spread of COVID while they hold lavish holiday parties inside The White House with no social distancing or masks, “Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit that assists immigrants at the border, said in response to the report. “This was never about stopping COVID-19.”

The incoming Biden administration has pledged to revisit the CDC’s order and immediately end the “Remain in Mexico” program. For many, however, the damage will have already been done. According to Human Rights First, at least 318 children returned to Mexico – whether they were from there originally or not – “were kidnapped or subjected to kidnapping attempts.” That figure includes only those victims who were willing to come forward and speak to journalists or researchers.

The stories that have been told are horrific. In May, for example, an asylum-seeking couple from Cuba were kidnapped immediately after they were returned to Nuevo Laredo by US officials, “held by armed men in a room covered in blood where migrants with missing body parts moaned on the floor,” according to Human Rights First.

Critics don’t just blame the United States, however. The Remain in Mexico program is only possible, after all, because the government of center-left President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to it. On Wednesday, two Mexican nonprofit organizations, the Institute for Women in Migration and the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic State of Law, filed a complaint with Mexico’s top prosecutor demanding an investigation into the de facto impunity enjoyed by those who victimize US asylum-seekers in the country.

The attorney general should not only look for those criminals, they said, “but also they should investigate the criminal liability of the Mexican authorities that have assumed the obligation of guarantors [of migrant safety] and have breached it,” the Mexican outlet Animal Politico reported.

Many of those being denied entry to the US, meanwhile, are coming from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, countries that the Trump administration at least publicly considers violent and politically repressive. Some have managed to avoid the Remain in Mexico program only to be forcibly returned to the hands of a government they fled.

Valeska Alemán Sandoval, a Nicaraguan student activist, told this reporter she was tortured by a pro-government paramilitary group, a toenail ripped out, and forced by police to record a “confession” identifying her fellow anti-austerity protesters as criminals and drug addicts. But the Nicaraguan government, while adamantly “anti-imperialist” in its rhetoric, closely collaborates with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, helping the Trump administration expedite the deportation of its own citizens.

In August, Alemán was a beneficiary of this international cooperation and put on a flight back to Managua, where Nicaraguan authorities were waiting.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

Read the original article on Business Insider