Preventable humanitarian catastrophe: Lawyer on evacuating at-risk Afghans under Taliban rule

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

After the Afghan government collapsed to the Taliban, nine U.S. Air Force planes arrived at the Kabul airport overnight to assist in evacuation efforts. The Pentagon says it hopes to send out one flight per hour in the next few days, lifting thousands of people out of Afghanistan. 

But tens of thousands more Afghan allies are still waiting for approval to come to the U.S. They would come with a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), a program for Afghan citizens who worked with the U.S. in the 20-year war effort. So far, the U.S. has only relocated about 2,000 Afghans in the past two weeks.

“It's a humanitarian catastrophe. And unfortunately, it was a completely preventable one,” says Adam Bates, Policy Counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project, a group that offers legal aid to Afghan citizens with the Special Immigrant Visa. 

He says the U.S. government has had two decades to anticipate what their withdrawal from Afghanistan would look like, and what humanitarian protections would be needed. 

“It was completely foreseeable that there was going to be a refugee problem … many communities of Afghans who were going to be in need of protection, including Afghans with U.S. affiliations, along with other communities. So the lack of planning, the lack of instituting any kind of protections, and having this whole thing kind of be slapped together in the last hours during this mad scramble at the airport … it's unconscionable.”

He says the priority now is to keep the airport open so flights can come and go, and maximize how many at-risk Afghans can be evacuated to safety — ideally U.S. territory.

“But I think it's a lot of chaos right now, and a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of sadness and grief.”

Meanwhile in the U.S., President Biden said on Monday: “I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. And part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence. American troops are performing this mission as professionally and as effectively as they always do. But it is not without risks.” 

Bates says Biden is wrong about Afghans not wanting to come to the U.S. “That claim is false. It is appalling. The White House has never offered any evidence to support that claim. I think what he's referring to is that there is often a several-month delay between the issuance of a Special Immigrant Visa and that person actually arriving in the U.S.”

He says that delay is often due to how long it takes the U.S. government to coordinate flights for people once they give them visas. “This idea that there are thousands of Afghans who have visas to the U.S., and they've undergone this years-long, 14-stage application process just for fun — I have not seen that in my years working in this field.”

He says Biden’s second claim is more plausible — that the Afghan government wanted to avoid a large refugee exodus. “It should be obvious now why Afghans did not have confidence in the Afghan government and the fact that the Biden administration delayed instituting humanitarian protections to prop up the image of this government as legitimate. I think that's more plausible, but it's also moral bankruptcy.”

How many people should be evacuated immediately because they might be targeted and potentially killed by the Taliban? About 80,000 people at minimum, Bates estimates. 

He breaks it down: The Special Immigrant Visa program currently has about 20,000 applicants, and typically, each applicant is allowed to bring their spouse and their unmarried children under age 21. That generally means four people per visa — so 20,000 applicants equate to 80,000 total people. 

“But it's important to understand that this SIV program was only ever intended to protect a very narrow sliver of Afghans who are at risk and in need of protection. It has very rigid application requirements and is meant to protect people who are working directly in support of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. So that's really the tip of the iceberg in terms of the total communities of Afghans who need protection and are not going to fare well under a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.”

He says it’s possible for the U.S. to evacuate everyone now and sort out their visa approvals later. 

“Historically, that is what the U.S. has done. Under our immigration law, the president … [can] use a power called parole to allow people to enter the country temporarily so that they can be processed safely on some path to legal immigrant status.”

He explains that when American troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the Ford administration paroled 130,000 Vietnamese refugees, and the majority of them went to the U.S. territory of Guam. Then over a few months, they were processed into the U.S. and became citizens. 

“So not only does President Biden have that power, but we have historical precedent for doing this kind of evacuation and for protecting these people.”



  • Adam Bates - attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project