The United States has decided to allow more refugees from Afghanistan, provided they meet its expanded eligibility criteria, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed Monday.
Around 20,000 applications have already been received for the program to resettle interpreters who had worked alongside US forces, and their immediate family. The decision comes amid a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the country.
"We know there are Afghans who don't qualify (for the special visa program) but who helped us and they deserve our help," said Blinken.
"We created a Priority 2 designation granting access to the US refugees mission program for many of these Afghans and their family members."
Who will qualify under new criteria?
Employees and former employees of US-based news organizations are eligible to apply for asylum, as are those of aid and development agencies that are based in the United States, along with other relief groups that receive their funding from the US. Other potentials include employees and former employees of the US government and the NATO mission in Afghanistan who do not qualify for a dedicated program.
This means that around 50,000 more Afghans and their immediate families who do not qualify for Special Immigration Visas (SIV) could be permanently resettled in the US as part of the Priority 2 refugee program.
But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there were "significant, diplomatic, logistical and bureaucratic challenges to the new Afghan refugee program."
One of the issues for those wanting to leave the war-torn country is that the adjudication process could take up two years. The refugees, might have to stay in a third country until their applications are approved.
It will be "the responsibility of refugee program applicants to get themselves out of Afghanistan," a US official said.
For this reason, the US has already been in discussions with surrounding countries to accept "potential outflows of people" under the UNHCR.
Blinken said other Afghans could apply for refugee status under the United Nations refugee agency from third countries.
Ghani blames the US for security crisis
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani meanwhile has pointed the finger at the US for the country's spiraling security crisis.
"The current situation is due to a sudden decision on the withdrawal of the international troops," Ghani told the Afghan parliament in a speech on Monday, adding, "we have had an unexpected situation in the last three months."
He did say that his government had plans to re-establish control in the next six months.
The Taliban have been making rapid gains. In recent weeks militants have moved in on provincial capitals, including Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province. Residents say there is fierce fighting taking place and there are bodies in the city's streets.
The US military has helped Afghan forces with air support, despite being in the final phases of its withdrawal from the country.
jc,kb/jsi (AP, AFP, Reuters)