Resettlement hopes of Afghan artists shattered as Germany halts scheme

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The future of thousands of at-risk Afghans who had hoped to move to Germany to rebuild their lives through its federal admission programme is in limbo as visa processing for their resettlement has been abruptly halted. 

A number of Afghan artists who had already received admission approval from the German authorities tell The Art Newspaper that they were notified in early April that their applications were being placed on hold, with some advised that the delay may take two to three months.

“Two to three months is a long time. We thought we would be in Germany soon but instead we are in another uncertain situation,” says Mohammad*, an established artist who had completed a visa interview at the German embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, but was then informed that his application would be delayed until the programme officially resumes.

In October 2022, the German government announced it had granted approvals for admission to 38,100 Afghans, around 26,000 of whom had already entered Germany. The federal programme was planned to admit around 1,000 Afghans per month who were deemed particularly at risk of persecution by the Taliban.

As the evacuation of Afghans has fallen down the agenda of other Western governments, Germany’s programme became the only hope for many who had been left behind. The scheme notably targets artists and cultural figures, a group that is rarely recognised as at risk, along with workers in the fields of politics, justice, media, academia and education, and those regarded as vulnerable due to their gender, sexual orientation or religion. Consideration is only given to those who are still in Afghanistan and are recommended by authorised agencies; individuals cannot apply.

However, the programme was recently suspended with immediate effect by the German foreign office and interior ministry due to “isolated indications of possible attempts at abuse”, according to German media reports. The German foreign office did not respond to requests for comment.

The freeze comes as a fresh blow for some of Afghanistan’s leading artists, who had pinned their hopes on a new life in Germany—and invested considerable sums of money in obtaining a visa.

Before US-led forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, Mohammad had taught art at the US embassy in Kabul for five years. His students even included the wife of the 2016-17 ambassador, Hugo Llorens. He also taught Nato military staff for a decade as part of an arts programme. Yet despite his relationships with senior diplomats and the Western military, which placed him in danger, he was left behind in the evacuation. His pleas for help to the powerful Westerners he once considered friends were unfruitful.

Mohammad was granted a case number for a US Special Immigrant Visa. However, the application requires Afghans to relocate to a third country for the duration of the process—around two years—which he could not afford.

There was some respite when he received preliminary approval for a visa from Germany last summer, but with no German embassy in Afghanistan he had to travel to either Iran or Pakistan to finalise the process. Both countries require Afghans to obtain visas before entry. The surge in the number of Afghans travelling to Pakistan has driven visa prices from around $100 per person to between $250 and $1,400, with the lower-cost options often refused for men. Mohammad’s Pakistani visa request was rejected 15 times. Finally, he borrowed the money to pay an agent $1,350 for the visa, which was approved within hours. His family’s visas cost $250 per application.

The German authorities are covering the cost of living for Mohammad and his family during their stay in Pakistan but he still needs to find the money to extend his Pakistani visa, which will soon expire. Mohammad says around 45 people in his hotel are in the same uncertain situation.

Lives put on hold

Ali*, another established artist who has been unable to leave Afghanistan, also received approval for the German programme last summer. By December he had received his passport and saved $700 to obtain a visa to Pakistan. However, after his application was rejected eight times he decided to pursue his case from Iran. He received an Iranian visa in January and had scheduled an interview appointment with the German embassy in Tehran for mid-April. On 1 April he was informed that the appointment had been cancelled. Two weeks later, he was told the Tehran embassy could no longer process his application and that he would have to travel to Pakistan when the programme resumed.

“My life has been on hold, I can’t work and I can’t plan anything. It is a constant stress and there are no guarantees. I would not wish this on anyone; it’s a horrible feeling,” says Ali, who is unsure how to raise the potential $1,400 required for a visa to Pakistan.

“All my hopes were set on receiving an approval from Germany so [the delay in visa processing] is a huge blow, not just for me but for other cultural figures with a legitimate case like mine,” says Ashtak*, one of Afghanistan’s most recognised artists.

Ashtak had been a popular figure in Western diplomatic circles. His top supporters included Karen Pierce, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, the Italian ambassador Roberto Cantone and his wife, and the Finnish and US embassies, to name just a few. Just a month before the fall of Kabul, representatives from the US embassy rushed to purchase 18 of his works. Despite his connections, his appeals to secure passage to a safe country for him and his family were unsuccessful.

People who had been campaigning on Ashtak’s behalf finally managed to get his case noticed by a German authorised agency last year. In September, he was requested to provide his documents for processing, a first step towards a visa approval. Seven months on, his hopes have ebbed away and he wonders if the programme will ever resume.

“The mental stress from this never-ending uncertainty is painful. I have even become sensitive to looking at my phone screen, hoping for that approval email or call,” he says. “All my hopes are pinned on Germany resuming their admissions. If they don’t it will be another huge misery inflicted on Afghans.”

*Names have been withheld to protect their identities

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