The International Rescue Committee (IRC) responds today to the Biden Administration’s announcement of a humanitarian evacuation of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants to a third country. While the IRC supports the evacuation of SIV applicants, the Administration must move rapidly to develop plans to keep Afghan partners safe, including by identifying a safe third country and providing details on evacuation plans; and developing a safe, secure, and efficient adjudication process that addresses the longstanding challenges in SIV processing that have resulted in years-long backlogs.

The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program – the existing program created by Congress to fulfill a critical U.S. commitment to provide permanent protection to Afghans affiliated with U.S. missions – has been plagued by backlogs for more than a decade. Only 16,000 Afghan SIVs have been issued since 2014 despite the availability of 26,500 total authorized visas during that time. There are more than 18,000 applications in the current pipeline, impacting a potential total of 53,000 individuals including family members. The State Department estimates it will take more than two years to process those in the pipeline. There are also thousands of Afghans ineligible under this program who are in dire need of protection. 

Further, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate as conflict, COVID-19 and the impacts of climate change impact millions. Nearly 200,000 people have been internally displaced in the first half of this year and as the government has officially declared drought, displacement levels are likely to soar. A recent IRC assessment showed that families are likely to turn to extreme measures of survival - such as child marriage, selling off assets or sending children to work - as food prices increase to unattainable levels. Moreover, violence has increased in recent weeks and attacks on civilians and aid workers have left the country reeling.

Nazanin Ash, Vice President of Public Policy and Advocacy at the IRC said:

“The U.S. must be prepared to meet its commitment and moral obligation to help its allies escape violent retribution for their critical assistance to the United States. A plan for protection and processing of thousands of SIVs and other vulnerable people must factor centrally into the U.S.’ withdrawal plans, however rapidly they unfold. The backlog in the system already means it will take an Afghan applicant 2-3 years or more to reach safety in the U.S. Given the uncertain security landscape, there is no guarantee that in-person interviews at the U.S. embassy in Kabul will even be possible for those left after the withdrawal.

“The U.S. must ensure that SIV eligibility criteria include the tens of thousands who have put themselves at mortal risk to help the U.S. military and U.S.-affiliated organizations, ensure the program can operate with integrity after withdrawal through the U.S. embassy in Kabul, and designate this group for Priority 2 status under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program as additional means to ensure long-term protection after U.S. operations have pulled out.

“The Administration must also work to ensure the safety of thousands of Afghans, including women and girls, in need of humanitarian protection as violence levels escalate.”

The IRC further calls on the administration to take immediate steps to ensure the protection of at-risk persons who do not benefit from the impending evacuation, including U.S.-affiliated Afghans who do not meet the strict SIV program eligibility criteria; family members of SIV holders left behind; would-be evacuees who are unable to depart due to extenuating circumstances, such as those facing medical emergencies or security-related travel restrictions; and thousands of other Afghans, including women and girls, in need of humanitarian protection.

The IRC has resettled more than 15,000 Afghan SIV recipients since Congress established the program, and is committed to ensuring that this critical population that has helped the U.S. mission overseas is given a chance to seek safety in the United States. Without rapid investment, the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program will be insufficient to provide rapid protection in an evolving emergency situation. The administration must take immediate steps to ensure this program can operate with integrity, now and post-withdrawal, including through the allocation of 20,000 visas in Fiscal Year 2022.  While an evacuation is a critical near-term measure to meet emergency needs, the administration must ensure the integrity of new and existing protection pathways.