Report

Expedited Visas for Vulnerable Afghans? Many Have Been Waiting for Years.

Why the special immigration system is broken.

By , the social media editor at Foreign Policy., and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Several Afghans crowd around a table holding Special Immigrant Visa applications.
Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants crowd into an internet cafe to apply for the SIV program in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 8. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The application process for asylum and refugee resettlement in the United States was already cumbersome and bureaucratic. Now, with thousands of Afghans who helped the United States during two decades of war fleeing the Taliban, experts warn the entire system is broken and needs an overhaul. 

Taliban fighters took Kabul on Sunday after seizing power in towns and villages across Afghanistan. The quick collapse of the Afghan government meant many Afghans have suddenly become vulnerable to Taliban retribution. 

The challenge of resettling them should have been foreseen, said Adam Bates, who serves as a policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “The U.S. government has had 20 years to anticipate and plan, and it’s unconscionable that we’ve gotten to such a late hour.” 

The application process for asylum and refugee resettlement in the United States was already cumbersome and bureaucratic. Now, with thousands of Afghans who helped the United States during two decades of war fleeing the Taliban, experts warn the entire system is broken and needs an overhaul. 

Taliban fighters took Kabul on Sunday after seizing power in towns and villages across Afghanistan. The quick collapse of the Afghan government meant many Afghans have suddenly become vulnerable to Taliban retribution. 

The challenge of resettling them should have been foreseen, said Adam Bates, who serves as a policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “The U.S. government has had 20 years to anticipate and plan, and it’s unconscionable that we’ve gotten to such a late hour.” 

Biden administration officials said on Wednesday they were surging resources to Afghanistan to manage the frenzied evacuation effort, and they vowed to help these Afghans obtain special immigrant visas (SIVs). State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a press briefing on Thursday that as of that afternoon, 6,000 people had been processed at Kabul’s airport and were waiting to board flights out of the country. Price said the U.S. government has evacuated around 7,000 people from the airport since Aug. 14. The administration has dubbed the evacuation campaign “Operation Allies Refuge.”

The SIV program is mainly for Afghan interpreters and others who directly assisted the U.S. military. The United States is also expanding potential refugee access for other Afghans—including those who worked for U.S. government-funded programs, nonprofit organizations, and the media—in a newly created Priority 2 Designation program.

“The U.S. government has had 20 years to anticipate and plan, and it’s unconscionable that we’ve gotten to such a late hour.”

J.C. Hendrickson, who is the senior director of refugee and asylum policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, said between 75,000 and 100,000 Afghans are eligible for resettlement based on the SIV program. The Priority 2 program, once fully up and running, would be open to a slightly larger number of Afghans.

But experts warn each program has operational flaws that will severely hamper the potential for Afghans to obtain refuge. In fact, many Afghans eligible for resettlement in the United States are already navigating a thicket of red tape in the SIV program, managed by the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security, as well as the Priority 2 program.

For instance, while the new Priority 2 status offers another stream for Afghans to settle in the United States, it does not allow for in-country processing, nor does it provide guidance on which countries to go to, leaving many people to guess where to go next to apply.

“People on the ground don’t have a good idea of exactly what this program is going to look like, how long they’re going to be wherever they go, or even where to go in the first place,” Bates said.

What’s more, the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans already has a yearslong backlog of nearly 18,000 applicants, and since these applications are made on an individual basis, the true number of applicants, plus their families, could be as much as 80,000 cases. And although Congress passed an emergency supplemental funding bill earlier this year that funneled around $1 billion into the program and increased the amount of visas by 8,000, the backlog still stands, with no sign of it letting up. Visa applicants must also go through onerous security background checks to determine the applicant has no ties to militant or terrorist groups, which can take months or, in some cases, even years to complete.

All the while, those eligible for refugee status face increased danger from the Taliban. According to some reports, the group has been going door to door to search for prominent former Afghan officials, particularly women. Former interpreters and their family members have expressed fear for their lives. At least 300 Afghan interpreters or their family members awaiting U.S. visas were killed before the Taliban toppled the Afghan government, according to data from No One Left Behind, a nonprofit working to support SIV applicants. 

With a full Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, it is unclear how many of those tens of thousands of Afghans and their family members are able to travel safely to Kabul’s airport, where the U.S. military and State Department are coordinating evacuation flights. 

Some Afghan SIV applicants, fearing for their lives, are now in hiding

“A program that looks really good on paper but doesn’t actually protect anybody isn’t a great program,” Hendrickson said. “There’s just so much information we don’t have from the administration.”

Other critics of the program say it mirrors broader problems in U.S. policy toward refugees. Biden has ratcheted up the refugee admittance cap and funneled more money into programs that allow Afghans and other people to settle in the United States. But refugee advocacy groups and humanitarian workers who harshly criticized the Trump administration’s approach said they are still disappointed that Biden hasn’t gone far enough to reverse measures that enabled the bureaucratic slowdown.

“There’s a fecklessness in this administration when it comes to anything to do with refugees, anything to do with immigration,” said one humanitarian worker who works on Afghanistan issues and spoke on condition of anonymity. “And it is showing itself in this instance in a really horrific and life-threatening way.”

Some Afghan SIV applicants, fearing for their lives, are now in hiding. 

Despite the bureaucracy and pitfalls, top Biden administration officials insist they are doing everything they can to safely evacuate vulnerable Afghans and transport them to the United States for resettlement.

In a press briefing on Monday, Price said the United States has already resettled 75,000 Afghans and their family members through the course of the SIV program across the two decades of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. 

“When this administration recognized that the security situation was … quickly evolving, many weeks ago, we launched Operation Allies Refuge,” Price said. “This was something that was never envisioned in any SIV program, including the one we had in Afghanistan or the one we had in Iraq—that is to say, a gargantuan U.S. effort not only to process, adjudicate, and to grant visas to these so-called special immigrants but to actually bring them to the United States with a massive airlift operation.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a recent internal message to State Department personnel obtained by Foreign Policy, said the administration is “committed to doing everything we can to help Afghan partners who have worked with us over the last twenty years.”

“We have a duty to take care of the people who have taken care of us, in Afghanistan and around the world.”

In the interim, the State Department is scrambling behind the scenes to ferry Afghan SIV applicants to third countries while they deal with the application backlog—a backlog that has sat largely untended by the State Department for years in the runup to the U.S. withdrawal. 

Albania, Kosovo, and Uganda have all agreed to host Afghan refugees bound for the United States, at least temporarily. A State Department spokesperson said they are in touch with other foreign governments but declined to give specifics.

“We continue to discuss with partners and allies options to relocate Afghans who supported the U.S. government,” the spokesperson said. “We have heard generous offers of support from a number of countries for assisting vulnerable Afghans.

But given Afghanistan’s rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis, experts fear the new surge in support to process refugee and SIV applications is too little, too late. Earlier this summer, the number of Afghan civilians killed and injured had reached a record high, with the Taliban responsible for the majority of the casualties. Approximately 550,000 Afghans—the majority of whom are women and children—are internally displaced in the country, according to data from the United Nations published on Tuesday. And an estimated 18.4 million people in Afghanistan currently require humanitarian assistance, doubling from numbers recorded last year.

Given the intensity of the situation, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report issued earlier this week implored state leaders to halt any forced return of Afghans, including those who have had their asylum claims rejected.

“[The year] 2021 is going to be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians in over a decade if left unaddressed,” Hendrickson said. “What we’re looking at right now is nearly half the country in need of NATO [and international] aid, and to facilitate that aid, it’s going to take the entire arc of the world community.”

Update, Aug. 19, 2021: This article has been updated with new information on the number of people the U.S. government has evacuated from Kabul so far. 

Correction, Aug. 19, 2021: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Afghans eligible for special immigration visas. It has been updated with correct figures.

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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