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2021-08-20t040000z_2017261543_mt1sipa000cajog0_rtrmadp_3_sipa-usa-scaled-e1644001832597

Why are these Afghan refugees still stuck in limbo?

It's been almost two years but political jockeying is making resettlement impossible for many who worked with US forces in Kabul.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

As U.S. forces completed their chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 30, 2021, the DC commentariat turned its focus to Washington’s failure to extract those Afghans who had worked with us, as well as professional women – including members of Parliament – who were believed to be in danger from the new government. 

However, a year and a half later, Washington seems to have largely forgotten about those same people.  

Some remain trapped in Afghanistan, while others were able to flee to neighboring countries or Europe, but even those who have made it to the United States have been unable to find stability because of a lack of follow-through by Congress and the Biden administration. Despite the promises of safe haven made to Afghans who, often at great risk, worked alongside U.S. forces and civilian advisers, their fate has been rendered uncertain by the polarizing politics of U.S. immigration policy.

Even those Afghans lucky enough to gain refugee status in the U.S. face ongoing barriers to fully settling into their new home. Indeed, their humanitarian parole status on which they were permitted to enter the country will expire as early as September 30, although, according to a recent leak, the Department of Homeland Security intends to renew their parole. While that is welcome news to the many refugees facing the upcoming deadline, such an action will simply push back the deadline without providing long-term solutions, like streamlining the bureaucratic process or increasing funding for those under-resourced agencies tasked with handling several refugee waves.

Legislative fixes are needed, but Congress has been unable to muster the will to enact a bill to settle the Afghans’ status – despite lawmakers’ bipartisan declarations of support for the new refugees in the wake of Washington’s hurried withdrawal back in August 2021. Still pending are the Afghan Adjustment Act and the Afghan Allies Act, both of which attempt to streamline the process for permanent legal status on the pathway to citizenship. If neither is passed, Afghan refugees' futures will be left to the whims of current U.S. immigration politics.

Even refugees applying for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) – granted to Afghans who aided the U.S. military – face long timelines and fear the loss of their ability to work or even deportation if they aren’t granted visas in time. They are forced to rely on humanitarian parole, along with its looming expiration. Refugees live in a fog of uncertainty even after arriving in their new home, one which many of them have already served.

For those in Afghanistan, their situation is obviously perilous. But procuring a passport, leaving the country, and paying the various expenses (including bribing Taliban officials) only represent the starting set of obstacles that refugees face. Women attempting to leave Afghanistan are often stopped from leaving the country merely because they are not accompanied by a man. Those who aided U.S. and allied forces fear retribution from the Taliban or other extremist groups.

Meanwhile, an Afghan in Afghanistan with a fully approved SIV cannot complete the process because of the mandatory interview at an embassy, and their nearest embassy is in Pakistan. Given the state of international travel out of Afghanistan, this is a huge ask for a vulnerable population.

For those Afghan allies who succeeded in fleeing their homeland in hopes of eventually reaching the United States but who are currently living in third countries, gaining entry into the U.S. – let alone permanent residency – is a lengthy and uncertain process. For example, some Afghan families in Greece (which permitted their entry with the understanding that they were in transit to the U.S. or Canada) have struggled to even get an interview at the American embassy in Athens. Though it’s been almost two years since their flight, these families can’t tap into Greece’s social safety net or be granted work permits. According to Jumana Abo Oxa, the Protection and Mental Health Manager at Elpida Home – the charity providing for Afghan refugees in Greece – the organization pays for every bit of the resources these refugees use.

Some Afghan refugees even travel to Latin America to make their way from there to America's southern border. With limited legal recourse, this path can seem like the only alternative to desperate people, though the journey has proven to be arduous and dangerous for those who attempt it. U.S. border agents apprehended 2,132 Afghans at the southern border in 2022.

Media coverage of their situation has sharply declined since the latter part of 2021 due in part to other global crises, most notably the war in Ukraine as well as subsequent refugee waves that have swamped an overloaded immigration system. As CBS News noted, “as of Feb. 12, the U.S. had approved just 4,775 applications from Afghan evacuees who requested asylum or a special visa status for those who aided American forces.” There are currently around 77,000 resettled Afghans in the U.S., alongside 62,000 Ukrainian refugees, and 25,400 other refugees of various nationalities in the system.

Moreover, the world now faces its greatest refugee crisis since World War II, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which reported in 2021 that there were over 89.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. If the government continues to rely on the current inefficient processes, then it risks allowing current events to whisk away Afghans’ chance at a new home.

Wida Amir, a board member of the Afghan-American Foundation, called for progress on the Afghan Adjustment Act, citing the fact that the application backlog at the State Department is 10 years long for asylum cases from around the world. Other advocates like Meredith Owen of Church World Service and Chris Purdy of Human Rights First added that the funding challenges become more acute every day that legislation is not passed to set aside funds and resources to grant Afghan refugees special immigrant visas.

As the next crisis creates yet another crashing humanitarian wave on the American immigration system, political tardiness endangers new Afghan Americans’ chances at a permanent home.

UK coalition forces, Turkish coalition forces, and U.S. Marines assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla via Sipa USA)
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