The Biden administration plans to allow thousands more Afghans to relocate to the U.S. as refugees because of the growing threat of Taliban violence, the State Department said Monday.
The administration said it will launch a program that would permit thousands of Afghans to resettle to American soil, including those who worked for U.S.-funded projects, U.S.-based media outlets and nongovernmental organizations.
But the program will not offer evacuation flights for these Afghan refugees, who would have to find a way to leave the country on their own, officials said.
"The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan. 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 State Department said in a statement.
With the Taliban advancing across the country as U.S. troops withdraw, lawmakers and refugee rights organizations had appealed to the White House to take urgent action to protect Afghans — particularly Afghan women — who face potential retribution from the Taliban because of their association with the U.S. They proposed granting refugee status to a larger group of people and not just those who worked for the U.S. government for a two-year period, as the current visa program requires.
The Priority 2, or P-2, program would open the door to Afghans who worked for the U.S. military or who have an association with the U.S. government but do not meet the strict criteria of the current special immigrant visa program. The special immigrant visa program, which has been plagued by bureaucratic delays, requires Afghans to prove they worked for the U.S. military or the U.S. Embassy for at least two years and to provide documents from relevant human resources offices.
"This designation expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation but who are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) because they did not have qualifying employment, or because they have not met the time-in-service requirement to become eligible," the State Department said.
Afghans who are eligible for the new program would have to leave the country and then apply as refugees, a process that can take at least 12-14 months once they leave Afghanistan, officials said.
“It is the responsibility of the applicant to get themselves out of Afghanistan,” a senior official told reporters in a telephone briefing. “They need to be outside of Afghanistan for us to begin the processing.”
A similar program was set up for Iraqis who had affiliations with the U.S. in 2008.
Refugee and human rights organizations welcomed the decision, but said the administration needed to move swiftly and to accept the largest possible number of Afghans who worked for civil society organizations.
“A P2 program for vulnerable U.S.-affiliated Afghans is absolutely necessary to protect those in danger,” said Chris Purdy, project manager of Veterans for American Ideals, a program at Human Rights First. “We’re encouraged that the Biden administration realizes that decisive action needs to be taken to save as many lives as possible. Implementing this program, the government must include as many Afghans who have worked for civil society as possible.”
About 200 Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and faced the threat of retaliation from the Taliban were flown to the U.S. on Friday. They were the first wave in a series of evacuation flights for about 700 Afghans and their families, who are being flown directly to U.S. soil. Another 4,000 Afghans, whose visa applications are still under review, will be flown to third countries, where their paperwork will be processed in safer circumstances. But that leaves about 14,000 Afghans who have applied for the special immigrant visas in limbo, and the Biden administration has come under criticism for not having organized a larger-scale evacuation.
Those who do qualify for evacuation will have to get to the capital, Kabul, on their own, despite the threat from the Taliban forces that control major roads and encircle provincial cities.
Reports from the battlefield have become increasingly dire. Taliban forces have captured territory in every corner of the country and are threatening Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south.
President Joe Biden has ordered all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this month.