Biden administration expands refugee program access for Afghans who have worked with the United States

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The State Department said on Monday it would expand access to the U.S. refugee program for some Afghans amid fears of Taliban retaliation as the U.S. military withdrawal draws to a close.

The new designation creates a path to the United States for Afghans who do not qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which Congress created to allow Afghans and Iraqis targeted as a result of their work for the United States to settle safely in the United States.

However, the thousands of Afghans now eligible for the refugee program will be responsible for their exit from Afghanistan, a senior State Department official told reporters on Monday, and the State Department will not begin treating them as as refugees only when they are in another country. This treatment can take more than a year.

“The United States’ goal remains a peaceful and secure Afghanistan,” the department said in a backgrounder. “However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the US government is working to offer some Afghans, including those who have worked with the US, the opportunity to resettle refugees in the US. ”

These Afghans and their eligible family members will be treated under the new designation “Priority 2” or “P2”, which applies to “groups of concern designated by the Department of State as having access to the program due to their circumstances and need relocation.

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 people will have to be outside of Afghanistan to be treated, it makes it much less meaningful. ”

“We have been asking as a resettlement community for a P2 for this group for many years because the SIV program alone is so tight,” she said.

“We certainly recognize that the treatment in Afghanistan is very difficult, so if the treatment in the country is not possible… there is precedent and there have been many other situations where we have had something called an ETC. – an emergency transit center – or a PTA – a protected transfer agreement – to basically airlift people to another secure location for refugee processing, but I think just leaving families to themselves- Even the care of going to another country, that means it won’t help a lot of people, including those who need it most, “she said.

“I think if people had the visas and the ability and the financial means to move to another country indefinitely without any guarantee that they would have further treatment in the United States, if they could, they would already do it without P2, ”noted Sharp.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that the new Afghan refugee program presented “significant diplomatic, logistical and bureaucratic challenges” and acknowledged that it would be “incredibly difficult” for Afghans seeking to apply for refugee status. refugee similarly travel to third countries to apply when the Taliban took control of checkpoints outside of Afghanistan.

“Sadly, this is the case with millions of people around the world who find themselves in very difficult circumstances,” Blinken told State Department reporters.

Blinken highlighted the humanitarian aid the United States is providing to both 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 they can find safety and security, and we will do everything we can to help them, including by doing these different ways. “arriving in the United States for this. possible group of people,” Blinken said.

Under the new program, Afghans who did not meet the minimum “length of service” eligibility requirements for the SIV program but “work or have worked as employees of contractors, local staff, interpreters / translators “for the United States government, United States or NATO forces, those” who work or have worked for a program or project funded by the United States government in Afghanistan and supported by a grant from the United States government or a cooperation agreement ”, and those“ who are or have been employed in Afghanistan by a media organization based in the United States or not. -government agency ”will be eligible for the P2 designation.

“This designation extends the possibility of permanent resettlement to the United States to several thousand Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their affiliation with the United States but who are not eligible for a visa.” Special Immigrant (SIV) because they did not have an eligible job, or because they did not meet the service time requirement to become eligible, ”the State Department said.

These Afghans must be referred by their employers, the senior State Department official said, and their treatment will not begin until they are out of Afghanistan. This treatment can take 12 to 14 months.

On Friday, the first flight of SIV candidates – about 200 people, including those who have worked with the United States and their families – landed in the United States, part of a priority group of 700 Afghan SIV candidates who have completed most of the basic process required to get a visa. With their families, there are around 2,500. A second group arrived in Fort Lee, Virginia on Monday morning, IRC’s Sharp told CNN.

The US government will not be offering similar resettlement flights for refugee claimants at this point, the senior State Department official said.

“This program aims to expand the openness of people who have the option of relocating to the United States beyond SIVs,” the official said. “So this is our attempt to try to provide an option for people.”

“At the moment, unfortunately, we do not plan to move them, but we will continue to examine all options to protect those who have served with us – for us, and we will examine 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 nonprofit groups have expressed concern that the Biden administration is not doing enough to help Afghans who have aided the American troops and diplomats.

The senior State Department official said there had been no specific event that prompted the announcement of the refugee designation on Monday – “it’s just that it’s taking a long time to put into practice. place and our first priority had been to really focus on getting the special afghan immigrant visa, the processing and relocation started because these are people who are particularly affiliated with us.

On Monday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Taliban were responsible for most of the “outrageous and atrocious acts of violence that have been perpetrated against the Afghan people” and that they “have seen a increase in these ongoing Taliban attacks “.

“They show little respect for human life, for the rights of the Afghan people, including the fundamental right of the Afghan people to live in safety,” he said at a briefing.

CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Maia Noah contributed to this report.

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