ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — A refugee crisis is brewing in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s stunning and rapid advance across the country, and as such, time is of the essence. The crisis in Kabul calls for an expansive Afghan refugee resettlement policy.
Conditions in Afghanistan
One of the primary factors motivating thousands of Afghans to flee is the threat of violence and reprisals by the Taliban. Those “who assisted U.S. government as well as “women, religious and ethnic minorities, human rights activists, journalists and members of the LGBT community” are all at risk considering the Taliban’s history of horrific human rights abuses. Deteriorating economic conditions in the country could soon be another powerful reason to leave as well.
Even before the fall of the Afghani government on August 15, 2021, estimates from the Congressional Research Service indicate that 90% of Afghans survived on less than $2 per day. Furthermore, fighting between Taliban forces and the Afghan National Army had already internally displaced more than 500,000 Afghans by late August 2021. Prolonged conflict, corruption and limited infrastructure have historically made the country a difficult sell to private sector investors. As a result, about 40% of the country’s GDP stems from foreign aid.
These issues will only worsen as the Taliban scrambles to establish a functioning government and navigates the slew of international financial sanctions imposed over the years. About $9.4 billion of Afghanistan’s international reserves are currently frozen in the United States, and, partially as a result of these measures, the country’s banking system is on the verge of collapse. Banks across the nation are closed or scrambling for enough cash to operate, with many people’s paychecks halted in the interim.
If the international community does not recognize the Taliban’s government as legitimate, this would cut off access to aid and government money banked overseas, triggering a devastating financial catastrophe that could send many Afghans deeper into poverty.
SIV Program for Afghan Refugee Resettlement
Many advocates have forcefully argued that the United States, after leading a 20-year war in the nation, bears a responsibility to provide a safe haven and path to prosperity for Afghan refugees. President Biden has said his administration hopes to evacuate between 50,000 to 65,000 Afghan allies and their families by the end of August 2021 and appears to be close to hitting this goal.
Evacuation efforts have largely focused on removing Afghans who worked as interpreters, translators and other staffing roles for U.S. forces, particularly those who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). SIVs offer a direct pathway to a green card for Afghans (and their immediate family) who worked for or with the U.S. government.
Eligibility for the program has also recently been expanded with a new designation called “Priority 2.”
Priority 2 extends SIV benefits to those who have not met minimum service time requirements while working for the U.S. government. Afghans who worked for U.S. media organizations and non-governmental organizations are also now eligible for green cards with the expansion. These programs have notable limitations for this crisis, though.
Backlogs and bureaucratic hurdles have plagued the SIV program since its creation in 2009. Furthermore, the program fails to provide an exit for the thousands of potential Afghan refugees unaffiliated with the U.S. also seeking to flee violence and crippling poverty. Unaffiliated Afghans will likely have to make use of the traditional U.S. refugee application process, which has its own share of complicated requirements.
The Biden administration’s recent use of humanitarian parole will hopefully alleviate some of these issues. The process allows refugees to sidestep a number of cumbersome application procedures in urgent situations and quickly move to safety, but it notably “does not automatically qualify them for a green card or permanent legal status.”
A Vietnamese Example
Refugee organizations, like Refugees International, are calling for a more robust response to Afghan refugee resettlement from the Biden administration that will “resettle up to 200,000 Afghan refugees” in the United States. Many people point to the ambitious programs enacted after the fall of South Vietnam as a blueprint to relocate thousands from Afghanistan. After Saigon was captured by the North Vietnamese army, the U.S. welcomed an estimated 130,000 South Vietnamese to its shores in 1975 alone and more than a million Vietnamese by 1990.
The Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, passed a month after the collapse of South Vietnam, provided $450 million in aid (equating to more than $2.3 billion U.S. dollars in 2021) to support a two-year resettlement program for evacuating and assisting refugees from South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
International negotiations with Vietnam also established the Orderly Departure Program in 1979, which allowed refugees to safely leave the country for resettlement without undertaking dangerous journeys to smuggle themselves across neighboring borders. This plan alone eventually allowed “more than 450,000 Vietnamese immigrants” to migrate to the U.S.
Reasons for Hope
These programs ultimately delivered hundreds of thousands from the poverty and violence afflicting their native countries and allowed for thriving Southeast Asian communities to establish themselves across the U.S. By 2017, the Migration Policy Institute estimated Vietnamese immigrant households had a higher median income ($63,200) than both immigrant ($56,700) and U.S.-born households ($60,800) and had a lower rate of poverty compared to other immigrant populations.
Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees achieved prosperity and security in the U.S. with the help of these programs and Afghan refugees could undoubtedly achieve the same if prioritized with similar initiatives and resources.
– Jackson Fitzsimmons