US expands Afghan refugee program as Taliban violence rises

Blinken US Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration on Monday expanded its efforts to assist at-risk Afghan citizens flee Taliban violence as fighting intensifies ahead of the U.S. military pullout at the end of the month.

The State Department said it is widening the scope of Afghans eligible for refugee status in United States to include current and former employees of U.S.-based news organizations, U.S.-based aid and development agencies and other relief groups that receive U.S. funding. Current and former employees of the U.S. government and the NATO military operation who don’t meet the criteria for a dedicated program for such workers are also covered.

However, the move comes with a major caveat that may severely limit the number of people who can benefit: applicants must leave Afghanistan to begin the adjudication process that may take 12-14 months in a third country, and the U.S. does not intend to support their departures or stays there.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the difficulties that applicants would face but said the U.S. remains committed to seeking a peaceful and secure Afghanistan.

“This is incredibly hard,” he told reporters. “It is hard on so many levels, it’s hard to pick up and leave everything you know (and) it’s hard to get yourself to a place where you can take advantage of what opportunities exist to see to apply for refugee status. And we recognize that this is. Alas, this is the case for millions of people around the world who find themselves in very difficult situations and particularly in Afghanistan now.”

Relief agencies said Monday's gesture was insufficient, pointing out significant, and in some cases insurmountable, hurdles that successful applicants would face. InterAction, an umbrella organization for scores of international relief and development groups, was highly critical.

“InterAction feels that this is unacceptable, as several critical border crossing checkpoints are now under Taliban control and Afghanistan’s neighbors may not necessarily welcome these individuals and their families,” it said. “Requiring at-risk Afghans to first become internationally displaced before applying for visas further endangers the Afghan people who have partnered with the United States.”

Nevertheless, the State Department said the move means that “many thousands” of Afghans and their immediate families will now have the opportunity to be permanently resettled in the U.S. as refugees that they did not previous have. The department could not offer a more specific number of how many might be eligible.

“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afg