President Joe Biden has described the end of US engagement in Afghanistan as a historic achievement, in which 120,000 people have been airlifted. Widely seen behind the scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport, a massive effort by volunteers and NGOs has been using social media to identify, trace and advocate for Afghans desperate to leave the country. Use social media to help. It has been portrayed as a “digital Dunkirk” in reference to the mass evacuation of Allied troops by sea during World War II.
Nonetheless, the president and his administration have drawn considerable criticism about the execution of the long-planned withdrawal, much of it focused on the complicated and frustrating process for Afghan allies, who needed visas to leave the country and visit the US.
In mid-July, US embassy staff in Kabul raised alarm about the Taliban’s progress, recommending that the administration take action to expedite security for Afghan allies, using what they called “special immigrant visas”, also known as SIVs. is called.
If the visa process had worked out better, more Afghan allies would have been able to flee a potentially deadly retaliation by the Taliban.
“The SIV program is clearly not designed to accommodate what we did in evacuating more than 100,000 people,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin bluntly acknowledged in a press conference at the end of the airlift.
And the alarming situation of Afghans who now want to flee but cannot, is a reminder that populations face dire threats in conflict zones around the world – but have not been able to make their way to safety in other countries.
SIVs allow Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and translators for the US military whose work “kept a target on their back” to remain in the US.
In 2009, a specific Afghan SIV program was established by the US and was originally designed to provide 7,500 visas over five years. Quotas do not cover family members who are entitled to visit the US
For years, advocates have expressed concern about serious delays in visa processing – up to three and a half years at a time. Some advocacy groups even sued the federal government for breaking the impasse.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration slowed down the review process even further. The move was part of a larger policy to allow fewer refugees into the country.
The Biden administration faced a backlog of 17,000 cases at the Afghan SIV program in January 2021. Throughout the spring, advocates urged the administration to expand the focus of the program and take more immediate steps to bring Afghan allies into the US in increasingly greater numbers.
It was not until mid-July 2021 that Operation Ally Refuge was launched by President Biden to remove SIV applicants who were in the later stages of the process.
By the end of July, Congress authorized the approval of 8,000 additional visas for applicants, waived pre-approval medical exam requirements and removed other restrictions. In early August, the administration expanded protections to a larger category of people – known as “P2s” – such as those working for NGOs and media outlets in US-backed Afghanistan. .
But by August 13, the evacuation of SIV applicants had been insisted upon to make way for the evacuation of American citizens from Afghanistan. Government insiders and advocates criticized the US State Department for delays in processing SIV applications at the time and failure to coordinate with the Pentagon to bring applicants to Kabul airport.
Defense Secretary Austin also acknowledged that the SIV program was “designed to be a slow process.”
Immigration experts have pointed out that the Biden administration had several other options to expand and accelerate refugee protection based on prior experiences with Haitians and Cubans as well as Vietnamese, Iraqi Kurdish and Kosovar Albanian refugees. Were.
For example, Afghan refugees are eligible for accelerated forms of protection, such as humanitarian parole, which allows individuals to obtain emergency entry into the US who face dangerous situations in their home country, although the situation is temporary and for benefit. is without. Using the regular US refugee admissions program would require raising quotas and dealing with its own backlog.
Finally, 100,000 or more Afghans trying to obtain SIV or other forms of security are subjected to further security checks before entering the US, called “lily pad sites”. is called.
Estimates of survivors in Afghanistan who are at risk of Taliban persecution are staggering and difficult to confirm.
Before the withdrawal ended, advocates claimed that there remained 65,000 SIV-eligible applicants and their families, while estimates of eligible P2 applicants and their families were in the range of approximately 200,000 to, potentially, millions.
These numbers do not account for Afghans at the forefront of nation-building, including the government, women’s and human rights organisations, the media and the United Nations Mission. Even before the fall of Kabul, Afghans had the second largest refugee population globally after Syrians.
And what is the trouble these people – especially women and girls – face at present. A new government is taking shape that represents the hardline Taliban leadership of the past.
While the Taliban have sought to reassure the international community that they will allow Afghans to leave the country and respect human rights, recent reports of violence and human rights abuses against women’s rights protesters belies this posture. ISIS-K’s attack on Kabul airport shows how fragile Taliban’s defenses can be. Law and security scholars have warned against global recognition of a terrorist-controlled government.
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Amid a growing humanitarian crisis linked to hunger and extreme poverty, the United Nations estimates that half a million more Afghans could achieve refugee status by the end of 2021.
In announcing an end to US military deployment to support nation building, President Biden has emphasized his commitment to making human rights central to his foreign policy.
Minimizing the military’s role should be welcomed by experts who argue that it is the US-led war on terrorism that failed in Afghanistan, not nation building.
Exactly how this helps Afghans who want to flee but have not yet been able to, is not clear. And how to ensure the widespread protection of populations facing mass atrocities and human rights violations without the threat of US-led coalition military power is also uncertain – in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.