By Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Thousands more Afghans who may be targets of Taliban violence due to their U.S. affiliations will have the opportunity to resettle as refugees in the United States under a new program announced by the State Department on Monday.
Reuters first reported earlier on Monday the plans to set up the “Priority Two” refugee program, covering Afghans who worked for U.S.-funded projects and for U.S.-based non-government bodies and media outlets.
“In light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States,” the State Department said in the announcement.
The program, which the announcement said could help “many thousands” of Afghans, comes as fighting surges in Afghanistan ahead of the formal completion of the U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of this month, with the Taliban pushing to capture key provincial capitals https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-afghanistan-conflict/afghan-forces-battle-taliban-for-control-of-southern-city-idUSKBN2F31C6.
U.S. President Joe Biden has faced pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups to help Afghans at risk of Taliban retaliation because of their association with the United States during the 20-year war.
Those who worked as employees of contractors, locally employed staff and interpreters and translators for the U.S. government or armed forces are eligible for the program, as well as Afghans employed by a U.S.-based media organization or non-governmental organization (NGO), the State Department said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to deliver remarks on the program at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT), the department said.
The new program for Afghans requires applicants to be referred by a U.S. agency or for the senior-most U.S. citizen employee of an NGO or media organization headquartered in the United States.
That requirement differs from an existing refugee program https://www.reuters.com/world/exclusive-us-suspects-4000-cases-fraud-iraqi-refugee-program-documents-2021-06-18 for Iraqis, which allows Iraqis to apply directly but has been indefinitely suspended while U.S. officials pursue a sweeping fraud investigation.
POTENTIAL REFUGEE OUTFLOWS
Once they have applied, Afghans will be contacted by email to let them know they are in a U.S. government system and will then have to make their own way out of Afghanistan to a third country, a senior State Department official said.
The process from that point involves security screening and can take from 12 to 14 months, said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
“We’ve already been in discussion with neighboring countries, as well as (the U.N. refugee agency), to be prepared for potential outflows,” said another official who briefed reporters, adding that it is important that Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan remain open, while others might travel to Turkey via Iran.
Iran and Pakistan have boosted security along their borders, making it more difficult for Afghans trying to take advantage of the program to cross, said Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee and migrant rights division.
While crossing the long and porous borders is not impossible, it carries risks, Frelick added.
“If you are forcing people to cross irregularly through difficult terrain, forcing them to put themselves in hands of traffickers or smugglers, that ups the ante in terms of risk,” Frelick said.
Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project that provides legal assistance to refugees, said observers will be watching closely how the program works in practice.
“What we can’t have is a program that exists only on paper that doesn’t help anyone,” Bates said.
The Priority Two program applies to Afghans who do not qualify for the Special Immigration Visa (NYSE:) (SIV) program that covers interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government, and their families.
About 200 SIV applicants whose visas are in the final stages of processing and family members flew into the United States last week https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/airlift-begins-afghans-who-worked-us-during-long-military-campaign-2021-07-30 at the start of an evacuation effort dubbed “Operation Allies Refuge” that could include as many as 50,000 people or more.
A second plane carrying several hundred more Afghan SIV applicants arrived overnight in the United States and they will join the first arrivals at Fort Lee, Virginia, a U.S. official said on Monday.