New York human rights organisation ‘racing against the clock’ to get Afghan artists to safety

As the deadline for evacuation looms, the Artistic Freedom Initiative wants the US government to grant refugee status to individuals

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People being evacuated at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul earlier this week Photo: cc U.S. Marine Corps; Sgt. Samuel Ruiz

People being evacuated at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul earlier this week Photo: cc U.S. Marine Corps; Sgt. Samuel Ruiz

The New York-based human rights organisation Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI) says it is “racing against the clock” to safeguard hundreds of Afghan artists and activists trying to flee Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban insurgency. AFI provides pro bono legal assistance for individuals at risk, with immigration lawyers working on a case-by-case basis.

The organisation has received hundreds of inquiries via email, social media, and its website in the past two weeks from artists at risk, says Ashley Tucker, the organisation’s director of programmes. “They continue to come in through the day and night,” she adds.

Nearly all the inquiries received have been from people based in Afghanistan. “There are a few who are currently in other countries and are at risk of being sent back. None of the applicants are already here in the United States,” Tucker says.

AFI staff are focused on screening and filing for refugee designation for artists affiliated with the US government, non-profits, and media conglomerates. The deadline for these applications is 31 August when US troops must leave Afghanistan. Yesterday, at least 90 people were killed in two powerful bomb blasts at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport; the Pentagon confirmed 13 US service personnel were among those killed.

AFI is working to get as many applications processed as possible, taking on extra volunteers and contract workers. “Next week, after the window for filing P-2 [designation] closes, we are moving into executing a medium- and longer-term strategy based on filing merit-based visas,” Tucker says. A statement adds that the organisation “will continue to develop and expand our legal strategies and aim to assist as many Afghan artists as possible”.

“These legal strategies were designed on an emergency basis, and especially in light of the very volatile situation on the ground in Afghanistan right now, we can't say how successful we will be in these efforts,” Tucker says. “But as a non-profit that works at the intersection of human rights and the arts, we are committed to leveraging our legal expertise to do everything we can to help, and we are hopeful that these strategies will work.”

In the run-up to the US presidential election last November, AFI drew attention to one of President Donald Trump’s most controversial acts, Executive Order 13780, the so-called travel ban that prevented people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. In January, President Joe Biden lifted the restrictions.

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