Humanitarian groups pressure Biden on stranded Afghan refugees

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More than 100 humanitarian groups are pressing President Biden to do more to evacuate at-risk Afghans left behind amid the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from the war-torn country in late August.

In a letter to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan last week, leaders from international development, humanitarian, and immigration organizations expressed disappointment with the administration’s “overly narrow list of priority stakeholders for evacuation” and called for a meeting with administration officials to “voice our concerns and hear the administration’s plans to evacuate and resettle at-risk Afghans.”

The administration has faced sharp pressure from Capitol Hill over the hundreds of American and thousands of Afghan nationals who were not able to leave the country before the Islamist Taliban insurgency overthrew the U.S.-backed government in Kabul with a lightning offensive this summer. Many of the stranded Afghans fear they are at particular risk from the Taliban government for assisting the U.S. and Western military campaign over the last 20 years as translators, drivers and other jobs.

“These individuals played key roles in efforts to strengthen Afghanistan’s government, judiciary, civil society, and media and to protect human rights,” the letter reads. “For their work, many now face the threat of violent retaliation at the hands of [the] de facto authorities.”

The rights groups are specifically calling on the administration to “identify additional pathways to safety” for at-risk Afghans who do not currently qualify for the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program designed for Afghans who supported the U.S. throughout the war.

In early August, the administration created a Priority 2 (P-2) designation for Afghans who do not qualify for the SIV program, but supported U.S. government-funded programs or worked for a U.S. media outlet or non-governmental organization, but the groups signing the letter say P-2 applicants “have been consistently under-addressed over the past several months.”

“The evacuation of these individuals should be seen as no less significant than any other priority evacuees, given their work advancing democracy, human rights, and human dignity and level of risk.” the group said.

The pressure comes as the Biden administration continues to assist U.S. citizens still trapped inside Afghanistan and chart a path to safety for the at-risk Afghans under the SIV program.

Senior officials from the Defense and State Departments told Congress last week that more than 200 American citizens were still looking to leave Afghanistan months after the withdrawal — far more than approximately 100 citizens the State Department said in its initial estimate in early September.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that more American citizens who previously intended to stay in Afghanistan have expressed a desire to leave in response to the State Department’s successful evacuation efforts.

As for at-risk Afghans, the U.S evacuated close to 76,000 Afghanis in the final weeks of the withdrawal.

Nearly 53,000 Afghans are awaiting final screening at military bases in eight states. Close to 10,000 of those evacuated have been resettled in the U.S. since the evacuation efforts concluded in late August.

But members of Congress say there are still thousands of Afghans who assisted the U.S. during the war who were not evacuated.

Of the 18,000 SIV applicants in the State Department’s backlog at the end of August, approximately 705 were estimated to have been evacuated during the end of August operations, according to mid-September Department of Homeland Security figures cited by Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican. Including family members of applicants, the SIV backlog exceeds 80,000 according to some estimates.

The total number of Afghans eligible for a U.S. visa under the Afghan SIV and P-2 programs could be upwards of 265,000, according to some non-governmental organizations.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this story.

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