Senators call on Biden administration to improve treatment of Afghans

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A group of Democratic senators on Thursday called on the Biden administration to account for what they said was the “disparate” treatment of Afghans who have sought to flee their country since the US pullout compared to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

President Biden’s recent creation of a program to facilitate access to the United States for Ukrainian war refugees has underscored the administration’s more restrictive policy towards Afghans and others, said the Democratic Sens. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), Cory Booker (NJ), Ron Wyden (Oregon) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) wrote Thursday in an open letter to Biden and the Department of Homeland Security.

“While the United States’ response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has been admirable, it is unfortunate that this welcoming and accommodating model is not the norm for all humanitarian crises, wherever they occur, whether in Haiti, throughout Central America, Africa, the Pacific, and elsewhere,” the senators wrote.

The Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) program, established last month, allows Ukrainians to apply for temporary refuge, known as humanitarian parole, in the United States if they meet certain basic criteria, including that they lived in Ukraine at the time of the Russian invasion. and that they have a US-based sponsor to vouch for them. The Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February.

Since the U4U program launched last month, “nearly 22,000 Ukrainian nationals have been allowed to travel to the United States to apply for parole,” said Angelo Fernández Hernández, spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security.

While refugee advocates have applauded the program for its humanitarian breadth, it has also been criticized by several U.S. veterans groups, refugee resettlement organizations and Afghan advocates, who say the administration has simultaneously prevented tens of thousands of Afghans to seek refuge in the same way. At the end of August, the United States completed the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.

Administration officials say the comparison is unfair. Last year, the Biden administration brought more than 76,000 Afghan evacuees to the United States, most as humanitarian parolees, after a chaotic withdrawal in August caused the collapse of the state-backed government States and the return of Taliban control.

Another 2,000 Afghans followed in the months that followed, and Operation Allies Welcome, as the government called the mass resettlement effort, represents its own “separate pipeline to welcome our Afghan allies”, a senior official said. responsible, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with the guidelines set by the administration.

Ukraine’s program is “quite different in a way, in that it is not designed for permanent relocation to the United States. It’s supposed to be some sort of safe harbor program, which is different from Afghans, because I don’t think any of us expect fleeing Afghans to go back to Afghanistan anytime soon.” , the official said.

Critics of the United States’ handling of its withdrawal from Afghanistan say that despite the massive airlift, tens of thousands of Afghans – including those who worked directly for and alongside the US government – ​​were left behind and struggled to find a way out. The US government admits there is no easy way to get Afghans out of their country.

The senior official said the administration would like to see more Afghans transferred to the United States, but that “it’s very difficult for people to get out of Afghanistan if we don’t make it easy.” So that’s a key difference, that under United for Ukraine you can book a commercial flight. The Afghans cannot.

More than 40,000 Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of Homeland Security, for lack of other viable escape routes. The Taliban have installed a tough new government and detained or murdered people associated with the old US-backed system, lawmakers and advocates say.

For applicants for humanitarian parole, there are considerable hurdles, including a per capita application fee that exceeds what an average Afghan earns in a year and the requirement to prove that they were personally targeted by the Taliban. The creation of Uniting for Ukraine has, in the meantime, offered Ukrainians a path to humanitarian parole without such burdens.

Ukrainians applying for humanitarian parole through U4U are not required to show proof of individualized targeting – only that they have been displaced due to war.

The Department of Homeland Security says 70% of Afghan parole applicants remain in Afghanistan, which means the United States will not process their applications because it cannot review or interview them in person.

Lawmakers say the Biden administration can try harder.

The fact that the Biden administration has provided billions of dollars in aid and rallied the world to support Ukrainians “proves that when we have the will, we will find a way to live up to the American ideals of embracing people fleeing war and oppression,” Markey said. in a report. “My question is why this approach is reserved for a select few, when refugees from Afghanistan and around the world facing persecution, instability and violence face barriers to entry that Ukrainians can bypass.”

“It is a shameful but well-documented reality that throughout our history the United States has prioritized the comfort and safety of European Christian migrants,” Markey said.

In just over a month, the administration approved the humanitarian parole of 6,000 Ukrainians under the program. But the vast majority of Afghan parole applicants languish without a response, the senators wrote in their letter. Of those who had their cases tried: “The United States has approved only 270 Afghans for humanitarian parole, denying more than 2,000 applications,” they said.

While Biden has raised the annual cap on refugees allowed to resettle in the United States — his administration has actually not admitted that many refugees in practice, the senators said. “[O]Only 3,268 refugees were resettled” to the United States between October 1 and December 31, putting him on track to resettle just 10% of the 125,000 refugees Biden said the United States was aiming for. to welcome.

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