On Monday, as the Taliban took over many parts of Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced the United States intends to “transport out thousands of American citizens and civilian personnel,” as well as Afghans who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) and their families.
“Operation Allies Refuge has already moved 2,000 Afghans eligible for special immigration visas and their families,” Biden said in his address. The president said access to refugee services would also expand to Afghans who work for the U.S. embassy, U.S. nongovernmental organizations, U.S. news agencies, “and Afghans who otherwise are a great risk.”
Some faith leaders and experts say that these commitments aren’t enough.
Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, said he was heartened to hear Biden commit to evacuating at least some refugees, but he is worried about how Afghans will leave safely. The Kabul airport is under U.S. military control, but routes to the airport are lined with Taliban fighters.
“If we can evacuate people through Kabul, that’s great, but the airport is surrounded by the Taliban,” Palusky said. “We need corridors and ways out of the country that are feasible and safe.”
In a news conference after Biden’s concluded, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said officials plan to continue relocating SIV-eligible individuals, but could not say how many people that would be.
“We are going to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul for as long as it is safe to do so,” Price said in the news conference. “The [U.S.] Department of Defense, working in tandem with the Department of State … will be working around the clock to relocate as many eligible individuals as we can … we’re not in the position to give a specific number at this time because it is a fluid situation and it will be dependent on the security situation on the ground.”
Biden began withdrawing the final U.S. troops from Afghanistan in May, with a deadline of Aug. 31. The longest U.S. war, the war with Afghanistan has resulted in more than 172,000 deaths, including thousands of U.S. service members, and cost more than $1 trillion in U.S. spending.
Since the end of May, 250,000 Afghans have been internally displaced, and 80 percent of those are women and girls, according to the United Nations. This week, Afghan government officials and civilians fled the country while others sheltered at home.
Naomi Steinberg, vice president of policy and advocacy at HIAS, said that their priority is to “make sure that at-risk Afghans have the life-saving protection that they need.”
“Quite simply, they do not,” Steinberg told Sojourners. She expressed concern, not just for the U.S.-affiliated and SIV-eligible Afghans that Biden mentioned in today’s address, but also journalists, women, people of minority religions, and many others who face oppression and violence under Taliban control.
“Protection spaces are shrinking and the risk is going up by the second,” Steinberg said. “Biden needs to evacuate not just Afghans who have SIV status and their families but also all of these other individuals who are at great risk now, too.”
Jenny Yang, the vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, said on Twitter that the United States failed to properly plan the evacuation of allies in Afghanistan.
“The U.S. had ample time, plenty of precedent (like we did in Vietnam), and bipartisan political support to evacuate the approximately 18,000 Afghan #SIVs and their dependents,” Yang wrote in a thread. “But we failed to do so and now many of our Afghan allies will likely be left behind.”
According to Jessica Goudeau, an advocate for refugees and author of After the Last Border, the Biden administration continues to show that they are not keeping their promises regarding refugees.
“Many of the refugee admissions could have come from Afghanistan, and they didn’t,” she said. “Refugee organizations have been begging the Biden administration for this. It should have been a complicated but doable situation. Instead, their delays will cost lives.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Aug. 17 at 5 p.m. to correct the name of Naomi Steinberg’s organization, HIAS. The organization began as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society but is now known only as HIAS.