WASHINGTON – The Biden administration said Monday it will potentially allow thousands of Afghans to resettle in the USA as refugees, citing the threat to civilians from a resurgent Taliban.
Monday's decision will allow Afghans who worked for American-based aid groups, media outlets and other organizations to seek refugee status.
"Many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members are at risk due to these U.S. affiliations," a senior State Department official said in a briefing on the new effort.
To be eligible, at-risk Afghans would have to be referred to the State Department by their U.S.-based employer. Then, they would have to get themselves out of Afghanistan to a third country, where they would begin a lengthy vetting process, the State Department official said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials acknowledged that many Afghans will face severe financial and security obstacles in seeking to flee their homeland and live in a third country while being vetted for U.S. refugee status, a process that could take 12 to 14 months.
"I don't want to deny the challenge or the difficulty," Blinken said at a briefing Monday. Afghans who worked for U.S.-based organizations may feel "an acute sense of threat and fear," he conceded.
Ned Price, the State Department's chief spokesman, said the United States doesn't have the ability to process refugee claims inside Afghanistan because of the deteriorating security situation.
"At this point in time, unfortunately, we do not anticipate relocating them," the senior State Department official said. "But we will continue to examine all the options to protect those who have served" with U.S. organizations.
The expanded refugee program is aimed at helping Afghans who do not meet the strict criteria of a special U.S. visa program for those who worked directly with the U.S. military as translators, drivers and in other roles during the 20-year war.
The White House has begun evacuating Afghans who applied for those special visas. On Friday, more than 200 Afghans who served alongside U.S. troops arrived at Fort Lee, Virginia, part of the evacuation program. Those Afghans were near the end of the vetting process.
The special visa program is limited and has been plagued by backlogs. The Biden administration has come under intense pressure from lawmakers and human rights groups to help other Afghans who worked on the U.S. side during the war.
In announcing Monday's decision, the State Department acknowledged that tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with U.S.-affiliated organizations are at grave risk for retaliation by the Taliban, a militant Islamic group that has made rapid territorial gains as the U.S. military withdraws. Afghans who served with NATO-led forces will also be eligible to seek refugee status.
"The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan," the State Department said in a fact sheet released Monday. "However, 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."
Thousands of Afghans are fleeing their country. The Taliban captured territory in recent weeks and seized strategic border crossings with neighboring countries. The result: a 47% increase in the number of civilians killed and wounded across Afghanistan in the first six months of the year, compared with the same period last year, according to the United Nations.
The United Nations warned of an imminent refugee crisis in Afghanistan, saying an estimated 270,000 Afghans have been displaced inside the country since January, "primarily due to insecurity and violence."
President Joe Biden said American troops will be out of the country by Aug. 31, bringing America's longest war to a close before his initial deadline of Sept. 11. The Pentagon said the U.S. withdrawal is more than 90% complete.
About 2,500 Afghans – roughly 700 visa applicants and members of their immediate families – are to be relocated in the coming weeks through the visa program.
The State Department official said the agency expects to get "tens of thousands" of referrals from American employers on behalf of former or current Afghan workers and their families seeking refuge. The official would not provide a more specific estimate or say how many of those applications are likely to be successful.
The New York Times, CNN, Fox News and other media organizations pressed the Biden administration to grant U.S. visas to many Afghans who worked as journalists, interpreters and support staff for American news outlets covering the war.
"The Taliban has long conducted a campaign of threatening and killing journalists," the media companies wrote in a letter July 20 to the White House and congressional leaders. "Without the assistance of the U.S. Government, many of these Afghans face grievous harm and death for having done nothing more than lent their labor and skills to making certain the world knew what was going on in their country while U.S. troops were there for the past twenty years."
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White House expands effort to relocate Afghans amid Taliban surge