Given the increased fighting in Afghanistan, the Joe Biden administration announced on Monday that it will assist more at-risk Afghanis flee the Taliban-led violence in the country.
"The US objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan," the US State department said in a statement. "However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the US 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 US government has setup a new "Priority 2" category for Afghan nationals within the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) to Afghan nationals and their immediate families who "may be at risk due to their US affiliation", but aren't able to get a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) because they did not work directly for the US government or didn't hold their government jobs long enough.
What is Prioirty 2 Category?
"Groups of special concern designated by the Department of State as having access to the programme by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement" are identified as Priority 2 or (P-2 in short), the US State Department said in a statement on Monday.
However, cases under the P-2 refugee programme can't skip the steps set for permanent resettlement in the US under USRAP. "They undergo the same processing steps, including extensive security vetting," the State Department statement added.
What options were available to Afghan nationals before P-2?
So, far the permanent resettlement was only being considered for around 2,500 Afghanis eligible for Special Immigrant Visa applications -- most of whom served as translators or did other work for US troops or diplomats " who have cleared security vetting arrived in the US on Friday.
Who are eligible for P-2 programme?
The P-2 programme will allow more Afghanis to permanently resettle in the US. According to the US State Department, the P-2 programme is open to:
Afghans who do not meet the minimum time-in-service for a SIV, but who work or worked as employees of contractors, locally-employed staff, interpreters/translators for the US Government, United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), or Resolute Support;
Afghans who work or worked for a US government-funded programme or project in Afghanistan supported through a US government grant or cooperative agreement;
Afghans who are or were employed in Afghanistan by a US-based media organisation or non-governmental organisation.
What are the caveats to the P-2 programme?
To qualify for the Priority 2 category, Afghans and their eligible family members (spouse and children of any age, whether married or unmarried) must be nominated by a US government agency or by the most senior civilian US citizen employee of a US-based media outlet or nongovernmental organisation.
Another major caveat in the P-2 programme that may severely limit the number of people who can benefit is that: applicants must leave Afghanistan to begin the adjudication process that may take 12-14 months in a third country, and the US does not intend to support their departures or stays there.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the difficulties that applicants would face but said the US remains committed to seeking a peaceful and secure Afghanistan.
"This is incredibly hard," he told reporters. "It is hard on so many levels, it's hard to pick up and leave everything you know (and) it's hard to get yourself to a place where you can take advantage of what opportunities exist to see to apply for refugee status. And we recognise that this is. Alas, this is the case for millions of people around the world who find themselves in very difficult situations and particularly in Afghanistan now."
Relief agencies too have criticised the US government's new programme, saying that the gesture was insufficient, pointing out significant, and in some cases insurmountable, hurdles that successful applicants would face.
InterAction, an umbrella organisation for scores of international relief and development groups, said that the US P-2 programme doesn't take into account the fact that "several critical border crossing checkpoints are now under Taliban control and Afghanistan's neighbours may not necessarily welcome these individuals and their families".
"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," the organisation said, according to AP.
How many Afghan nationals have already reached US?
A group of 221 people (400 according to a Reuters report) have already arrived in the US, and the remaining will be brought to the US in the coming days, AP reported.
Another 4,000 SIV applicants, plus their families, who have not yet cleared the security screening are expected to be relocated to third countries ahead of the completion of the US withdrawal. AP reported that roughly 20,000 Afghans have expressed interest in the programme. However, Reuters reported that the evacuation effort in Afghanistan dubbed "Operation Allies Refuge" could include as many as 50,000 people or more.
What about those who are not eligible for both SIV and P-2?
According to the US State Department, such individuals may apply for resettlement under the Priority 1 (P-1) programme by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement. Individuals may be referred to the P-1 program by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a US Embassy, or a designated NGO.
With inputs from AP