When Ahmad, his wife and three children traveled to Pakistan in November last year, they were hoping to stay there for a short period before migrating to the U.S. through the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program for Afghans.
The chaos that followed the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in August made the family’s trip to the neighboring country extremely expensive, including hefty fees and bribes to get visas and plane tickets to Islamabad.
Six months later, the family’s hopes were dashed when they were informed that their SIV application had been denied.
Ahmad told VOA that a recommendation letter included in his application had failed authentication, causing the denial.
From October to December 2021, more than 1,300 Afghan SIV applicants were denied, according to quarterly data from the U.S. State Department. In the preceding quarter, July to September, 1,462 Afghan principal SIV applicants were denied.
Denials are issued for various reasons, such as lack of sufficient documentation, failure to prove valuable service to the U.S. government, and the presence of derogatory information associated with the principal applicant.
“I’ve secured a very strong recommendation letter from our chief of mission, which I will submit in my appeal,” said Ahmad, who did not want to use his full name because of security concerns. “But I’m losing hope because I see too many people are being rejected.”
Approvals make up less than 10% of SIV applications.
From July through September last year, 1,292 principal SIV visas were issued.
But only 117 principal applicants received visas in the last three months of the year.
Travel for migration
Since the closure of most embassies in Kabul last year, Afghan applicants must travel to a third country to pursue their immigration cases, whether they’re applying to the U.S., Canada, the European Union or Australia.
Many Afghans have traveled to neighboring Pakistan to process their visa applications. And more than 14,000 Afghans have migrated to Germany via Pakistan over the past nine months, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said last week.
Canada, which has pledged to admit 40,000 Afghans, has also used its High Commission in Islamabad to process Afghan immigration applications.
“The lack of a physical presence in Afghanistan has presented challenges in how we collect and verify the information of applicants still in the country. In some cases, this had led to completing elements of the screening process, such as collecting biographic information, while Afghans are transiting through third countries,” a spokesperson for Canada’s immigration agency told VOA.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad is also a major hub for Afghans who seek to come to the U.S. as refugees, visitors or students.
In addition to the SIV, considered a priority program, the U.S. government has offered a Priority-2 refugee admissions program for Afghans who were affiliated with U.S. projects in Afghanistan until August 2021.
“Once an individual with a complete referral arrives in a third country, they are eligible to begin processing their refugee case. We do not publicly disclose the number of refugee cases the United States is processing in specific third countries,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA.
With more than 2.6 million refugees, mostly in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, Afghans already make up the third-largest refugee group in the world, according to the United Nations.
Rising unemployment and poverty, and the prospects of migration to the West, have significantly increased the number of Afghans who leave their country.
Applicants vs. visas
Since 2015, more than 17,800 Afghans have received SIV visas, excluding visas issued to the dependents of the principal applicants.
Approximately 50,000 SIV applications are currently being evaluated. Out of the total 34,500 visas Congress has allocated for the Afghan SIV program, 16,515 principal visas remain available.
This means nearly two-thirds of the applications in the pipeline will be unsuccessful, if not rejected, unless Congress approves additional visas for the program.
Estimated processing time, even for the prioritized SIV applications, takes about two years. Priority-2, as the name suggests, is deemed less urgent and requires more wait time.
From October 2021 to May 2022, 583 Afghan refugees were resettled in the U.S.
Last month, a group of Afghans protested in Islamabad against denials of or uncertainty about their immigration applications.
“I worked as governance specialist for a U.S. project in Afghanistan and have two recommendation letters from my previous employer, but I’ve got no response to my application for six months,” said Ghulam Sakhi, a protester.
U.S. officials say the National Visa Center has received “hundreds of thousands” of inquiries from potential SIV applicants since August.
“We are working diligently to process this enormous surge in applications,” said the State Department spokesperson.
Until their immigration applications are settled, the tens of thousands of Afghans who were once affiliated with or worked for the U.S. government either live in hiding from the Taliban in Afghanistan or as refugees in third countries.
Nearly all applicants, 94%, have reported facing economic hardship because of unemployment, according to a survey by the Association of War Time Allies, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for individuals who support U.S. military engagement in their countries.