US expands Afghan refugee program as Taliban violence rises

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FILE – In this July 5, 2021 file photo, vehicles are parked at Bagram Airfield after the American military left the base, in Parwan province north of Kabul, Afghanistan. The US and NATO have promised to pay $4 billion a year until 2024 to finance Afghanistan’s military and security forces, which are struggling to contain an advancing Taliban. Already since 2001, the U.S. has spent nearly $89 billion to build, equip and train the forces, including nearly $10 billion for vehicles and aircraft. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration on Monday expanded its efforts to assist at-risk Afghan citizens flee Taliban violence as fighting intensifies ahead of the U.S. military pullout at the end of the month.

The State Department said it is widening the scope of Afghans eligible for refugee status in United States to include current and former employees of U.S.-based news organizations, U.S.-based aid and development agencies and other relief groups that receive U.S. funding. Current and former employees of the U.S. government and the NATO military operation who don’t meet the criteria for a dedicated program for such workers are also covered.

However, the move comes with a major caveat that may severely limit the number of people who can benefit: applicants must leave Afghanistan to begin the adjudication process that may take 12-14 months in a third country, and the U.S. does not intend to support their departures or stays there.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the difficulties that applicants would face but said the U.S. remains committed to seeking a peaceful and secure Afghanistan.

“This is incredibly hard,” he told reporters. “It is hard on so many levels, it’s hard to pick up and leave everything you know (and) it’s hard to get yourself to a place where you can take advantage of what opportunities exist to see to apply for refugee status. And we recognize that this is. Alas, this is the case for millions of people around the world who find themselves in very difficult situations and particularly in Afghanistan now.”

Relief agencies said Monday’s gesture was insufficient, pointing out significant, and in some cases insurmountable, hurdles that successful applicants would face. InterAction, an umbrella organization for scores of international relief and development groups, was highly critical.

“InterAction feels that this is unacceptable, as several critical border crossing checkpoints are now under Taliban control and Afghanistan’s neighbors may not necessarily welcome these individuals and their families,” it said. “Requiring at-risk Afghans to first become internationally displaced before applying for visas further endangers the Afghan people who have partnered with the United States.”

Nevertheless, the State Department said the move means that “many thousands” of Afghans and their immediate families will now have the opportunity to be permanently resettled in the U.S. as refugees that they did not previous have. The department could not offer a more specific number of how many might be eligible.

“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” the department said in a statement. “However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States.”

The creation of a “Priority 2” category for Afghans within the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is intended for Afghans and their immediate families who “may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation” but aren’t able to get a Special Immigrant Visa because they did not work directly for the U.S. government or didn’t hold their government jobs long enough.

To qualify for the Priority 2 category, Afghans must be nominated by a U.S. government agency or by the most senior civilian U.S. citizen employee of a U.S-based media outlet or nongovernmental organization.

The first group of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants — most of whom served as translators or did other work for U.S. troops or diplomats — who have cleared security vetting arrived in the U.S. on Friday. That group of 221 people are among 2,500 who will be brought to the U.S. in the coming days.

Another 4,000 SIV applicants, plus their families, who have not yet cleared the security screening are expected to be relocated to third countries ahead of the completion of the U.S. withdrawal. Roughly 20,000 Afghans have expressed interest in the program.

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