Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a briefing at the State Department, Monday, August 2, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo)
The Biden administration on Monday expanded its efforts to assist at-risk Afghan citizens flee Taliban violence as fighting intensifies ahead of the US military pullout at the end of the month.
The State Department said it is widening the scope of Afghans eligible for refugee status in United States to include current and former employees of US-based news organizations, US-based aid and development agencies and other relief groups that receive US funding.
Current and former employees of the US government and the NATO military operation who don't meet the criteria for a dedicated program for such workers are also covered.
However, the move comes with a major caveat that may severely limit the number of people who can benefit: 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 recognize 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.''
Nevertheless, the State Department said the move means that ``many thousands'' of Afghans and their immediate families will now have the opportunity to be permanently resettled in the US as refugees that they did not previous have. The department could not offer a more specific number of how many might be eligible.
``The US objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,'' the 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 creation of a ``Priority 2'' category for Afghans within the US Refugee Admissions Program is intended for Afghans and their immediate families who ``may be at risk due to their US affiliation'' but aren't able to get a Special Immigrant Visa because they did not work directly for the US government or didn't hold their government jobs long enough.
To qualify for the Priority 2 category, Afghans 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 organization.
The first group of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants _ 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. That group of 221 people are among 2,500 who will be brought to the US in the coming days.
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. Roughly 20,000 Afghans have expressed interest in the program.