Stuck while the world moves on: upwards of 160,000 Afghans remain in limbo
Ten months after the US withdrew from Afghanistan, the media seems to have moved on from the issue. But many of the Afghans who were employed by the U.S.government remain stuck in Afghanistan.
“A year ago last August it seemed in this country that everyone really cared about Afghans and the lives of Afghans,” said U.S. Army veteran Matt Zeller, co-founder of No One Left Behind, during a panel co-hosted by the Brookings Institute and Lawfare on Monday morning. “I wish that the good will expressed last August would carry on.”
The panelists explained how the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) Program, meant to protect Afghans who assisted the United States during the 20-year war, is failing.
A June Association of Wartime Allies (AWA) report said that at least 76,000 SIV applicants (principals and dependents) remain left behind in Afghanistan. It also points to more recent State Department figures that put that number today between 70,000 and 160,000.
“Simply put, we did not evacuate the majority of the SIV applicants last August,” Zeller, who is a co-author on the report, said. “They did not make it into the airport, they did not make it onto the planes.”
And it seems to be getting harder to leave. There was a 91 percent drop in the number of SIVs granted between July and September compared to the following quarter of October through December, according to Military.com.
The panel, which in addition to Zeller included attorney Shala Gafary, (Ret.) Col. Steven M. Miska, and Bryce Klehm, Associate Editor at Lawfare, discussed how failures of the SIV program not only harm our Afghan allies but also American veterans plagued with guilt over leaving their former associates behind. Furthermore it hurts U.S. national interests, cementing the view that Washington cannot be trusted, and that it abandons the very people it professes to be helping.
The SIV program in Afghanistan was established in 2009 under the Afghan Allies Protection Act and allowed for a legal pathway for Afghans who worked with the American government in Afghanistan to immigrate to the U.S. Those who qualify for SIV visas are frequently Afghan interpreters or translators who risked their lives in their work supporting U.S. military objectives in the country.
To qualify for an SIV visa, Afghans must demonstrate one year of service to the United States government during the war, and that they are facing a “serious threat as a consequence of their employment.”
Zeller described harrowing conditions for those left behind in Afghanistan. He said under Taliban rule, the country is a “hell on earth for women,” and that high rates of food insecurity are leading to what he called an “ongoing act of famine.”
The panelists also discussed barriers in the application process that prevent Afghans who qualify for SIV from obtaining refuge in America. Gafary explained that many of the organizations that employed Afghans have “disappeared,” and that supervisors can be hard to locate for required documents, making proving service near impossible.
Furthermore, Zeller predicted a “coming crisis in the SIV application program.” Under current legislation, individuals seeking SIV visas are required to do an in-person interview but since there is no U.S. embassy in Kabul, this can be nearly impossible.
“Every applicant in the SIV program is eventually going to run into a problem where their application can advance no further,” Zeller said.
Moreover, for those with legal mechanisms of coming to the U.S., the only way to exit the country is through Pakistan. Gafary noted that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been registering Afghan refugees so they can obtain legal status and protection in Pakistan. However, the UNHCR visa operations are at a standstill. As Afghans await processing, Gafary said, they are being attacked in the streets
If Afghans manage to make it to the United States, the SIV program still doesn’t afford them long-term protection. The SIVs only permit a two-year period in the U.S., during which visa holders can obtain a work permit, social security number, and the right to live without fear of deportation.
“But what happens after those two years?” Gafary asked. After it expires, the SIV holders appear to be in limbo, again.
The panelists noted that this failure to evacuate, protect, and welcome our allies not only puts their lives in danger, but it also harms our nation’s credibility.
“We’ve already done just about as much damage as we can to our credibility around the world by abandoning these people in the first place,” said Zeller. “But …we were able to get some out and the idea that we would now put them in jeopardy and potentially even deport them is important.”
Most recently, the Senate failed to include the Afghan Adjustment Act — a measure which would allow Afghan evacuees to apply for a green card after residing in the U.S. for a year — in the Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act.
Zeller noted that if these problems are not corrected, they will have repercussions on future alliances.
“I don’t know how any ally in the future could ever look to us and trust us and take us at our word when we say that we’re going to have their back,” he said.
Finally, the panelists added that the failure to take care of Afghans who supported U.S. efforts in Afghanistan harms our own veterans.
Zeller explained that many veterans suffer “tremendous moral injury” from how the war ended. He said veterans are healing by assisting with the resettlements.
He described a new national program by the Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America (IAVA) in which veterans are partnered with Afghans who have been resettled. Zeller said that veterans serve as advocates for refugees as they integrate into American communities and start new lives here.
“We’re flipping the script,” Zeller said. “They were our cultural ambassadors and guides for us overseas and we now get to do that for them here.”
The panelists urged the audience to get involved, even if just by Googling how to fix the SIV program.
“A lot of Americans struggle with how to thank their veterans,” Miska said. “If you want to really help us, help us welcome our Afghan partners who served in conflict with us.”