The United States announced Monday it is expanding eligibility for resettling refugees from Afghanistan who may be at risk of Taliban retaliation due to affiliation with U.S. entities.
The State Department said thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who worked for the U.S. government, a U.S.-funded project, the NATO-led military mission, or a U.S.-based media or nongovernmental organization are now eligible.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Monday that the United States has “a special responsibility towards these individuals. They stood with us; we will stand with them.”
He said Afghans who worked with the United States or international partners since 2001 “are facing acute fears, persecution or retribution that will likely grow as coalition forces leave the country.”
The move comes as the United States winds down its military presence in Afghanistan after nearly 20 years.
Blinken acknowledged that the expanded program poses “significant diplomatic, logistical and bureaucratic challenges,” but said, “we take our responsibility to our Afghan partners deeply seriously.”
A State Department statement said access to the U.S. refugee admissions program “is a critical mechanism to provide protection for these individuals” and is a response to increased levels of Taliban violence in Afghanistan.
A more limited group of Afghans was already eligible for resettlement under the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program.
Blinken said that over the past 13 years, the U.S. State Department has issued more than 73,000 visas under the SIV program to Afghans who have helped the United States as well as their families.
A State Department official said the agency did not have an estimate for how many Afghans would be eligible to come to the United States under the expanded program.
The United States and NATO allies announced May 1 they were beginning to withdraw their last remaining troops from the country, and the Pentagon said in early July its withdrawal was 90% complete. The process is due to be complete by August 31.
Since international troops started leaving, Taliban insurgents have unleashed a widespread onslaught against Afghan forces, capturing nearly half of the country’s roughly 420 districts.