Some 200 Afghans were due to start new lives in the United States on Friday as an airlift was underway for translators and others who risked Taliban retaliation for working for the US government during its 20-year war in Afghanistan, US officials said.
The operation to evacuate U.S.-affiliated Afghans and their families comes as the U.S. troop withdrawal draws to a close and government forces struggle to repel Taliban advances.
The first plane of some 200 evacuees was to be transported by bus to Fort Lee, a US military base in Virginia, for final processing of documents and medical examinations.
Afghans who have worked for the United States are granted Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) allowing them to bring in their families. Up to 50,000 people or more could ultimately be evacuated in “Operation Allies Refuge”.
The first group are among some 2,500 SIV candidates and their family members who have almost completed the process, allowing them to be evacuated, said Russ Travers, deputy homeland security adviser to President Joe Biden.
Afghans were to stay at Fort Lee for up to seven days before joining relatives or host families across the country.
Evacuees underwent “rigorous background checks” and Covid-19 testing, Travers added. Some were already vaccinated and the rest will be offered injections at Fort Lee.
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The surge in violence in Afghanistan has created serious problems for many SIV candidates whose papers are being prepared amid reports – denied by the Taliban – that some have been killed by vengeful insurgents.
Some applicants cannot travel to the capital Kabul to complete the required steps at the U.S. Embassy or reach their flights.
“We do not have the capacity to bring people from other parts of the country to Kabul or to accommodate them in Kabul,” Tracey Jacobson, coordinator of the operation at the State Department, told reporters.
The SIV program has been plagued by long processing times and bureaucratic knots – which the Biden administration and Congress are working to undo – which have led to a backlog of some 20,000 applications. The State Department has added staff to manage them.
“The United States has had 20 years to anticipate what the withdrawal would look like,” said Adam Bates, policy advisor for the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal aid to refugees. “It is unacceptable that we are so late.”
Kim Staffieri, co-founder of the Association of Wartime Allies, which helps SIV candidates, said polls the group has conducted on Facebook show that around half of SIV candidates cannot reach Kabul, many of whom have been approved for evacuation.
Congress created SIV programs in 2006 for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who faced reprisals for working for the US government.