The Biden administration is expanding its efforts to take in more at-risk Afghan citizens who worked for nongovernment organisations as a Taliban offensive intensifies in advance of the United States military pullout from Afghanistan at the end of the month.
The State Department said on Monday it is widening the scope of Afghans eligible for refugee status in the United States to include current and former employees of US-based media organisations, aid and development agencies and other relief groups that receive US funding.
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Current and former employees of the US government and the NATO military operation who do not meet the criteria for an existing dedicated programme for such workers are also covered.
“We take our responsibility to our Afghan partners deeply seriously,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at the State Department on Monday.
“A great deal of hard work has gone into this already, but even more lies ahead. There’s a significant diplomatic, logistical and bureaucratic challenge,” Blinken said.
Blinken added the US would be offering assistance to neighbouring countries facing a surge of refugees from Afghanistan as continuing Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces create a climate of fear and uncertainty as US troops depart.
“We are also dedicating very significant assistance – humanitarian assistance – not only in Afghanistan itself, but to neighbouring countries to enable them to support those who come to their countries seeking refugee status,” Blinken said.
Blinken said the move would mean that “tens of thousands” of Afghans and their immediate families would now have the opportunity to be permanently resettled in the US as refugees.
An earlier State Department statement did not offer a more specific number of those who might be eligible for the programme.
“The US objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” the statement said.
“However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the US 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 US Refugee Admissions Program is intended for Afghans and their immediate families who “may be at risk due to their US affiliation” but are not able to get a Special Immigrant Visa because they did not work directly for the US government or did not hold their government jobs long enough.
To qualify for the Priority 2 category, Afghans must be nominated by a US government agency or by the most senior civilian US citizen employee of a US-based media outlet or nongovernmental organisation.
The first group of 221 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants – most of whom served as translators or did other work for US troops or diplomats – who have cleared security vetting arrived in the US on July 30.
Another airplane of about 200 Afghans arrived in the US on Monday morning, Blinken said and more up to about 2,500 would be arriving in 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 before the completion of the US withdrawal. Roughly 20,000 Afghans have expressed interest in the programme.
President Joe Biden has ordered a withdrawal of remaining US troops by the end of the month, ending the longest war in US history.
With the Taliban going on the offensive, the Biden administration acknowledges fears for the stability of the internationally-backed government.
But it insists that the US has done all that it can and has accomplished its priority mission of eliminating al-Qaeda fighters who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Blinken condemned the Taliban attacks and reports of atrocities.
“We’ve seen reports of atrocities being committed by the Taliban in various places where they are on the offensive. And these reports are deeply disturbing and totally unacceptable,” he said.