On August 2nd, 2021, the U.S. State Department announced the expansion of a new refugee program for Afghanistan called Priority 2, within the existing U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). This announcement comes as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan at the end of August. The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan against the Taliban since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Over the last twenty years, the U.S. government along with various private sector and media organizations have partnered with many Afghan citizens for intelligence, communications, and community relief in the confrontation against Taliban forces. With the U.S. withdrawal, many Afghans are desperately trying to flee their homeland, fearful of Taliban rule and retribution. The new Priority 2 program is aimed at helping these refugees to ultimately settle in the United States.
The Priority 2 program expands eligible refugee status to any Afghans and their families who were “current and former employees of U.S.-based news organizations, U.S.-based aid and development agencies and other relief groups that receive U.S. funding,” according to the Associated Press. The program also extends refugee status to any Afghan who aided the U.S. military during its operations. According to the State Department, “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. This designation expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation… Access to the USRAP is a critical mechanism to provide protection for these individuals.”
The State Department’s Priority 2 program on the one hand is a very welcome development as it allows for more Afghan allies of the U.S. to apply for refugee status. However, a key logistical challenge with the program is that anyone who applies for this new refugee status must first leave Afghanistan and can only start the immigration process from within an independent host or “third country,” as referenced by the Associated Press.
Priority 2 clearly has the opportunity to save the many lives of former U.S. collaborators, who may otherwise risk retribution from the Taliban. On the other hand, Priority 2 is drawing a large amount of criticism as its implementation is flawed due to logistical and operational challenges, particularly requiring people to leave Afghanistan before applying for refugee status.
With the recent Taliban offensive, it has become increasingly difficult for anyone in Afghanistan to leave the country. The Taliban has seized multiple border checkpoints along with numerous major cities, making mobility throughout the country nearly impossible. Unless the U.S. helps these Afghans escape the country – or provides a direct asylum path into the U.S. – it is worrisome that many who might qualify for Priority 2 will be unable to utilize the program due to these constraints.
It is essential that the U.S. lend more support to the incoming refugees from Afghanistan than Priority 2 provides. Expanding the applicant pool is a positive development, but it is vital that the U.S. provides a better operational solution. The U.S. needs to either allow the refugees to directly enter the U.S. and receive asylum or alternatively provide transportation and financial assistance for refugees needing to settle in a third country as they apply and wait for entrance into the U.S. As said by a spokesperson from InterAction, “requiring at-risk Afghans to first become internationally displaced before applying for visas further endangers the Afghan people who have partnered with the United States.” If the U.S. is sincere about its intention to help its Afghan partners and allies from its twenty year fight with the Taliban, it needs to do more.
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