Afghans desperate to flee the country are increasingly having to negotiate with private operators charging exorbitant sums while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Friday that all Americans who have asked to leave Afghanistan have been offered an opportunity to do so.
There are fewer than 100 American citizens in Afghanistan who are ready to leave, according to the State Department, and Blinken said Friday that there are a “couple hundred” more who, for now, want to stay.
But in addition to those Americans there are countless Afghans, including thousands who worked for or aided the US during the nearly 20-year war or believe they are in danger of being targeted by the Taliban, who are frantically trying to leave.
The increased sense of desperation and limited space on evacuation routes have fostered a private market with private operations demanding exorbitant amounts, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars to transport people outside the country by different means and routes, with no guarantee of success.
The operators include individuals and groups both inside and outside of Afghanistan, often contacted on social media.
In western Afghanistan, a family of 10 is hiding from the Taliban. The father, a doctor, was almost beaten to death years ago by Taliban fighters for refusing to carry out a punitive amputation, his son told CNN. His mother is a women’s rights activist who worked with the US Agency for International Development while American troops were in the country.
The 26 year-old son, who is in California, turned to Facebook and found people who said they could get the family out.
“You got to pay $10,000 per person in order to be evacuated,” the son says he was told.
“It would be like $100,000 and I cannot provide $100,000,” he added.
CNN is not naming the Afghans seeking to flee and has omitted several other details for their safety.
The Taliban have allowed a trickle of evacuation flights to take off in the past two months, but they have carried only a few hundred people at a time. Thousands more Afghans want to leave and many are turning to potentially unscrupulous operators as official efforts fall short.
‘There’s no guarantee’
“It’s getting worse because now it’s becoming normalized and desperation has grown,” says Hazami Barmada, a humanitarian aid worker who has organized flights out of Afghanistan and says people “absolutely are” making money by exploiting that desperation.
“They’re upcharging hazard pay, and I understand why there needs to be hazard pay,” Barmada added but said the guarantees being made with the high prices are impossible to rely on.
“There’s not a lot of information on these folks; they’re not being track properly,” Barmada said. “When you hear of $20,000 [per person] with a guarantee, there’s no guarantee.”
In Kabul, a father is in hiding with his wife and three young boys, changing locations every two weeks and asking others to drop off his sons at school so he’s not seen. He was a longtime contractor, working for organizations that supported US interests, including USAID, which his boss wrote in a recommendation letter included “putting himself in harm’s way to protect us.”
Last week, he says, he met with a man in Kabul who told him it would be $50,000 to get his family on a list for an evacuation flight.
The father applied for a Special Immigrant Visa in August, which would make him a higher priority for the US to try to evacuate, but he claims the regular contact he had with the Americans during the withdrawal is no longer helping.
“Unfortunately they are not doing now anything,” he said. “After [the deadline on August] 31st, they said everything is closed and it’s finished. We did not receive anything back from US Embassy.”
“How come we should pay for leaving the country but we served US [contractors]?” the father asked. “We don’t have the right [to leave]? They’re giving the right to whom, then?”
A State Department spokesperson said that since August, thousands of potential SIV applicants have submitted inquiries or new applications.
“We cannot determine how many of these new applicants have the employment experience with the US government necessary to qualify for SIVs until they are further along in the process,” the spokesperson said. “We’re looking into ways to expedite the process while keeping security foremost in our minds.”
Like the young Afghan American in California, the father tried multiple avenues. On LinkedIn, he spotted posts by Zachary Young, who repeatedly advertised evacuations from Afghanistan, promising this week, “we can deliver.” Young appears to have at least recently spent time in Austria, communicating on an Austrian number, and met someone in Vienna who CNN spoke with.
‘That’s how economics works’
When asked about his prices, Young responded to several people on the site that a car from Kabul into Pakistan would be $75,000, or $14,500 per person for a flight to the United Arab Emirates. To get to Albania, with refugee status, Young said, would be $4,000 more.
“Per [person] is expensive because availability is extremely limited and demand is high,” he told the person who shared his messages with CNN. “That’s how economics works, unfortunately.”
Young declined to speak on the phone but said in a text message that he asks Afghans who want to leave to have sponsors to cover them.
“If someone reaches out, we need to understand if they have a sponsor behind them to be able to pay [evacuation] costs,” which, Young said, are “highly volatile and based on environmental realities.”
CNN has not confirmed whether these operators charging the high fees have successfully evacuated anyone who paid to exit the country, as Young claims.
The son in California says that in addition to those he spoke with on Facebook, he has tried to reach out to everyone he can think of, from members of Congress to foreign embassies in and outside the US. He says he has spent $12,000 on legal fees for his family to apply for entry through Humanitarian Parole.
Meanwhile, he says, the Taliban have placed a bounty on his family’s heads and destroyed their home.
“I have sent tons of texts asking these people, begging them to evacuate my family,” he said. “If I [won’t] be able to evacuate them within the next two weeks, I think I will lose them all.”
CNN’s Katie Bo Williams contributed to this report.