US tells refugee aid groups to get ready for 50,000 Afghans

The effort signals the scale of the rushed effort to get at-risk Afghans out of their country before the Taleban further consolidate power. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The Biden administration has asked refugee aid organisations to prepare to receive and resettle as many as 50,000 Afghans evacuated under a stopgap programme as the US accelerates flights out of Kabul ahead of an end-of-August deadline, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

The programme, known as humanitarian parole, would target Afghans likely to be at risk under a Taleban-led government and who haven't already requested, or wouldn't qualify for, the Special Immigrant Visa programme used to evacuate people who aided American military forces or diplomats.

People who might qualify for humanitarian parole include women leaders, journalists and others from high-risk groups. Humanitarian parole is a rarely used discretionary authority that gives people in urgent situations one year in the United States to complete their application for more formal programmes like asylum, refugee and SIV status.

A senior administration official said on Tuesday (Aug 24) that Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas is using his parole authority to ensure that those arriving in the US have appropriate legal status. A State Department official said the agency doesn't publicly comment on internal deliberations or communications.

The effort signals the scale of the rushed effort to get at-risk Afghans out of their country before the Taleban further consolidate power.

The US said on Tuesday that 21,600 people were evacuated in the previous 24 hours as military cargo planes depart Kabul's airport every 45 minutes. Those Afghans are sent to other countries for vetting before travelling to the US or other nations.

Biden has come under pressure from European allies and lawmakers from both parties in Congress to extend his Aug 31 withdrawal deadline in order to ensure all Americans and Afghan allies are given a chance to leave. The deadline and what comes next was the main issue of discussion at a virtual meeting of the Group of Seven nations on Tuesday.

"The president needs to forget about the Aug 31 deadline," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News. "Extend the deadline, get outside the perimeter, make sure that every single American who wants to leave is able to get out with our assistance and our Afghan allies."

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that Biden believes the military is "on pace" to complete the evacuation by his deadline but "completion of the mission by Aug 31 depends on continued coordination with the Taleban, including continued access for evacuees to the airport".

Four planes carrying about 1,000 Afghan evacuees landed at Washington's Dulles airport, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

After initial processing, evacuees are are being sent to one of four military bases across the country, where they typically stay for 5 to 6 days to complete paperwork and undergo medical exams before being sent to local communities across the country.

Connecticut-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, for instance, has received two families and expects to resettle 400 to 500 individuals over the next 12 months, according to Chris George, the group's executive director.

Because individuals arriving under humanitarian parole don't have work authorisation or access to the same social benefits that refugees and those with special immigrant visas do, the State Department plans to issue a stand-alone funding opportunity through which aid agencies can apply for funding to serve this population, according to the people familiar with the plan.

Some Democrats signalled that they don't think 50,000 is enough.

"I believe the administration needs to move as quickly as possible and as expansively as possible, ensuring that we are raising the amount of refugee visas to whatever amount necessary," New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Monday. "I would say rock bottom, 200,000."

Despite bipartisan urging to extend the withdrawal deadline and evacuate more Americans and Afghans, the influx of arrivals is stoking political tensions, with a few conservatives openly hostile to the idea of accepting refugees.

They were joined by former president Donald Trump, who complained in a statement on Tuesday about what he called "thousands of terrorists" arriving in "neighbourhoods around the world."

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