U.S. expands refugee program for Afghans as Taliban escalates violence

People stand in a queue to submit their passport applications at an office in Kabul on July 25, 2021.

Sajjad Hussain | AFP | Getty Images

The Biden administration announced Monday that it will expand refugee eligibility for Afghans as the United States withdraws troops and the Taliban escalates violence in the war-torn country. 

Afghans who do not qualify for the existing special immigrant visa program but are at risk due to their U.S. affiliation will be able to apply to the U.S. refugee program to under a new “Priority 2” designation, the State Department said in a statement Monday.

“The special immigrant visa program is defined carefully by statute. And we know that there are Afghans who don’t qualify, but who helped us and deserve our help,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a press briefing Monday.

The designation will allow thousands of other Afghans to permanently resettle in the U.S.

This includes Afghans who are current or former employees of U.S. government-funded programs, U.S.-based media organizations and U.S.-based NGOs in Afghanistan. Their spouses and children will also be eligible for the refugee program, the statement said.

Afghans who worked for U.S. and NATO military operations but do not meet the minimum time-in-service requirement for a special immigrant visa, or SIV, will also be able to apply. 

“Even as we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan, the United States and our partners are deeply engaged to continue to work toward an Afghanistan where all Afghans can live in safety and security,” Blinken said at the press briefing. “We will continue our support for Afghan institutions, and for the gains that the Afghan people have made over the past 20 years.”

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The announcement comes as U.S. and coalition forces approach the end of their withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as Taliban fighters continue to seize more territory in the country at the risk of Afghan civilians. Thousands of Afghans and their families who aided the U.S. fear for their lives as they may face retribution from the Taliban. 

The Priority 2 designation allows “groups of special concern” designated by the State Department to have access to the U.S. refugee program, according to the statement. To qualify for the designation, Afghans must be nominated by a U.S. government agency. 

Afghans who are not eligible for the Priority 2 designation can be nominated for a “Priority 1” designation that deals with individual cases for resettlement under the refugee program, the statement said. They must be nominated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a U.S. Embassy or a designated NGO. 

A limited group of Afghans have been eligible for resettlement under the existing SIV program first established in 2009, which only considers Afghans who worked directly for the U.S. government and NATO coalition forces. 

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As of Monday, about 400 Afghan SIV applicants and their families have been flown to the U.S. under the relocation program dubbed Operations Allies Refuge, Blinken said at the press briefing.

The first flight arrived on Friday and a second flight arrived Monday morning.

The Biden administration announced the program in July, which aims to evacuate nearly 4,000 SIV applicants and their immediate families to a safer location to finish their application process. 

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About 200 Afghan SIV applicants and their families were flown to the U.S. on Friday under the relocation program dubbed Operations Allies Refuge. 

Congress also authorized 8,000 more visas to the SIV program in a bipartisan bill that President Joe Biden signed into law Friday. 

Under the bill, more than $1 billion is provided to federal agencies to assist with SIV program operations. This includes funds for emergency transportation, housing and other essential services for SIV applicants and their families. 

The Biden administration in April announced a full withdrawal of U.S. troops by Sept. 11. The president gave an updated timeline earlier this month, saying that the job would be done by Aug. 31. 

Until the withdrawal is finished, the U.S. is supporting Afghan security forces by conducting airstrikes against the Taliban.



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