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US expands refugee program for Afghans as Taliban escalates violence

People stand in line in an office in Kabul to submit their passport applications on July 25, 2021.

Sajjad Hussain | AFP | Getty Images

The Biden government announced Monday that it would expand refugee status for Afghans as the United States withdraws its troops and the Taliban escalate violence in the war-torn country.

Afghans who do not qualify for the existing special immigrant visa program but are at risk because of their US affiliation can apply for the US refugee program under a new name "Priority 2", the State Department said in a statement on Monday.

“The special program for immigrant visas is precisely defined by law. And we know that there are Afghans who do not qualify, but who have helped us and deserve our help, "said Foreign Minister Antony Blinken at a press conference on Monday.

The expulsion will allow thousands of other Afghans to settle permanently in the US.

This includes Afghans who are current or former employees of US government-funded programs, US-based media organizations, and US-based NGOs in Afghanistan. Your spouses and children will also be eligible for the refugee program, the statement said.

Afghans who have worked for US and NATO military operations but do not meet the minimum requirement for a Special Immigrant Visa [SIV] can also apply.

"Even if we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan, the United States and our partners are strongly committed to continue to work towards an Afghanistan in which all Afghans can live in safety and protection," said Blinken at the press conference. "We will continue our support for Afghan institutions and for the gains made by the Afghan people over the past 20 years."

The announcement comes as US and coalition forces near the end of their withdrawal from Afghanistan and Taliban fighters continue to occupy more territory in the country, risking Afghan civilians in the process. Thousands of Afghans and their families who have helped the US fear for their lives as they face reprisal from the Taliban.

The designation of Priority 2 enables "Groups of Special Interest" designated by the State Department to gain access to the US refugee program, according to the statement. To qualify for nomination, Afghans must be nominated by a US government agency.

Afghans who are not eligible for priority 2 can be nominated for "priority 1", which deals with individual resettlement cases under the refugee program, the statement said. They must be nominated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a US embassy or a designated NGO.

A limited group of Afghans are eligible for resettlement under the existing SIV program, which was first established in 2009 and only considers Afghans who have worked directly for the US government and NATO coalition forces.

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As of Monday, around 400 Afghan SIV applicants and their families had been flown to the US as part of the resettlement program called Operations Allies Refuge, Blinken said at the press conference.

The first flight arrived on Friday and a second flight arrived on Monday morning.

The Biden government announced the program in July, which aims to evacuate nearly 4,000 SIV applicants and their immediate families to a safer location to complete their application process.

About 200 Afghan SIV applicants and their families were flown to the United States on Friday as part of the resettlement program called Operations Allies Refuge.

Congress also approved 8,000 additional visas for the SIV program in a bipartisan bill that President Joe Biden signed on Friday.

The bill will allocate more than $ 1 billion to federal agencies to support the operation of the SIV program. This includes funds for emergency transportation, shelter and other essential services for SIV applicants and their families.

The Biden government announced in April a full withdrawal of US troops by September 11th. The president announced an updated schedule earlier this month and said the job would be done by August 31st.

Until the withdrawal is complete, the US is supporting the Afghan security forces with air strikes against the Taliban.

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