The State Department announced Monday that it will expand access to the US refugee program for certain Afghans amid fears of reprisal by the Taliban as the US military withdrawal nears completion.
The new designation creates a pathway to the US for Afghans who do not qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which Congress created to allow Afghans and Iraqis targeted because of their work for the United States to relocate to safety in the US.
However, the thousands of Afghans now eligible for the refugee program will be responsible for getting themselves out of Afghanistan, a senior State Department official told reporters Monday, and the State Department will not begin to process them as refugees until they are in another country. That processing can take more than a year.
“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” the department said in a fact sheet. “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.”
These Afghans and their eligible family members will be processed under the new “Priority 2” or “P2” designation, which applies to “groups of special concern designated by the Department of State as having access to the program by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement.”
Lindsey Sharp of the International Rescue Committee told CNN that the announcement of the P2 designation is “a step in the right direction,” but the fact “that these folks will have to be outside of Afghanistan to be processed, it makes it much less meaningful.”
“We have asked as a resettlement community for a P2 for this group for many years because the SIV program alone is so narrow,” she said.
“Certainly we recognize that processing within Afghanistan is very challenging, so that if in country processing is not possible … there is precedent and have been many other situations where we’ve had either something called an ETC – an emergency transit center – or a PTA – a protected transfer arrangement – to basically airlift folks to another secure location for the refugee processing, but I think just leaving it to families themselves in order to get to another country, it means that this will not help many people including those most in need,” she said.
“I think if people had the visas and the ability and the financial means to move to another country for an indeterminate amount of time with no guarantee that they would have onward processing to the US, if they if they could do that, they would already be doing it without a P2,” Sharp noted.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday the new Afghan refugee program presents “significant diplomatic, logistical, and bureaucratic challenges” and acknowledged it would be “incredibly hard” for Afghans seeking to apply for refugee status to even get to third countries to apply when the Taliban has seized control of checkpoints out of Afghanistan.
“This is, alas, the case for millions of people around the world who find themselves in very difficult situations,” said Blinken to reporters at the State Department.
Blinken pointed to humanitarian assistance the US is providing both to Afghanistan and neighboring countries to support those seeking refugee status.
“As we see again and again, people have to do very difficult things to make sure that they can find safety and security, and we will do everything we can to help them, including making these different avenues of arrival to the United States for this group of people possible,” said Blinken.
‘Our attempt to try and offer an option for people’
Under the new program, that Afghans who did not meet the minimum “time in service” eligibility requirement for the SIV program but “work or worked as employees of contractors, locally-employed staff, interpreters/translators” for the US government, US or NATO forces, those “who work or worked for a U.S. government-funded program or project in Afghanistan supported through a U.S. government grant or cooperative agreement,” and those “who are or were employed in Afghanistan by a U.S.-based media organization or non-governmental organization” will be eligible for the P2 designation.
“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.
These Afghans have to be referred by their employers, the senior State Department official said, and their processing will not begin until they are out of Afghanistan. That processing can take 12 to 14 months.
On Friday, the first flight of SIV applicants – about 200 people, including those who worked with the US and their families – landed in the US, part of a priority group of 700 Afghan SIV applicants who have completed most of the background process required to get a visa. Along with their families, they number about 2,500. A second group arrived at Fort Lee in Virginia on Monday morning, Sharp of IRC told CNN.
The US government will not be offering similar relocation flights for the refugee applicants at this point, the senior State Department official said.
“This program is meant to expand the aperture of people who have an opportunity to be resettled in the United States beyond the SIVs,” the official said. “So it is our attempt to try and offer an option for people.”
“At this point in time, unfortunately, we do not anticipate relocating them, but we will continue to examine all the options to protect those who have served with us – for us, and we will review the situation on the ground and our planning will continue to evolve,” they said.
Violence in Afghanistan has escalated, and in recent weeks lawmakers, advocates, and non-profit groups have raised concerns that the Biden administration is not doing enough to assist Afghans who helped American troops and diplomats.
The senior State Department official said there was no specific event that spurred Monday’s announcement about the refugee designation – “it’s just that this takes quite a lot of time to set up and our first priority had been to really focus on getting the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa processing and relocation started because these are people that are particularly affiliated with us.”
On Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the Taliban has been responsible for most of “the outrageous and atrocious acts of violence that have been perpetrated against the Afghan people” and that they “have seen an increase in these ongoing Taliban attacks.”
“They show little regard for human life, for the rights of the Afghan people, including the basic right of the Afghan people to live in safety and security,” he said at a briefing.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Maia Noah contributed to this report.