For more than a year, I have been trying to help a family leave Afghanistan for safety and a new life abroad. I met one member of the family of four years ago on multiple assignments in Afghanistan and we have stayed in touch through the many ups and downs of the war and its aftermath.
The father is eligible to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa due to his service alongside the US military. He was approved, which puts him and his family among the lucky ones. Many tens of thousands more are still waiting for approval, but even that, if it comes, isn’t a ticket out.
The US State Department authorized this father to petition for SIV status and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (an agency of the Department of Homeland Security) approved his SIV petition. However, SIV approval does not equal freedom for him and other Afghans with similar status – far from it. The barriers, bureaucracy and delays have plagued the program since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. And last week, Congress removed language from the National Defense Authorization Act that would have extended the program for another year.
The story of this one family – whose identity I’m deliberately withholding for their safety – is one of repeated disappointments. I first tried to get them out of the country on a US military plane in late August 2021 as US forces were withdrawing. There was no set process for doing so, nothing close. Their only chance was to navigate a crowd of hundreds bearing down on Abbey Gate at Kabul’s international airport, wave their papers in the air and hope a US service member saw them and let them into the airfield.
Unfortunately, no soldiers saw them. It was only the mother’s exhaustion months into her pregnancy that led them to leave the airport. That decision may have saved their lives. They missed the deadly suicide bombing at Abbey Gate, which killed 13 US service members (some of the same men and women this family were trying desperately to flag down) and nearly 200 Afghan civilians, by just hours.
Their effort to escape Afghanistan was just beginning. The next challenge was to apply for the SIV. The father worked for the US military for a sufficient period of time and in a sufficient capacity to qualify. He had proof of the length and details of his employment, and letters from his employer supporting his application.
He also had the advantage of friends here in the US, including myself; David Leopold, who’s a lawyer with Ulmer and Berne LLP; and Alex Plitsas of the Human First Coalition, working to get his application in order and, where possible, advocate to move it along through the approval process. Even with this help, it took him close to a year to receive provisional approval.
But approval is just a first step. Next up is satisfying yet more US government bureaucracy, including figuring out where to do your embassy SIV interview. Afghanistan is not an option since the US withdrew. There is no longer a US embassy in Kabul. That leaves Afghan SIV applicants the task of finding their way to third countries – “lily pads,” as they’ve come to be known – led by Qatar. Other countries, such as Pakistan, Albania and Iran, have served as transit points for some refugees, though in those countries applicants generally have to support themselves.
To get to one of those countries, Afghans need passports – a relative luxury for many. In the case of this family, the father has one, but his wife and children do not. Applying for and receiving a passport from the Taliban-controlled government, like so many steps in this process, is difficult and sometimes impossible. The Taliban has periodically closed the passport office, or restricted access to only members of the Taliban. I’m told by advocacy groups that when the office is open, the process is rife with bribery. Getting a single passport can cost thousands of dollars, a fortune for Afghans, and the risk of fraud is enormous. More recently, there has been another challenge: a shortage of the passport books themselves.
If and when a family can get passports – the family I’m helping is still trying – they must then decide where they will apply to have their consular interview, which is the next step in the SIV process. Pakistan, which is accessible via land, is crowded with Afghans who escaped but can go no further and non-Pashtuns face threats there. The wait for interviews can be months. Qatar has set a hard limit on the number of Afghans allowed in. And it can be difficult for Afghans to manage travel to Albania, another “lily pad” country.
For those lucky enough to arrange an interview in one of those countries, the math standing in the way of traveling is harrowing. Today, there are 15,000 principal applicants cleared to fly and the State Department estimates more than 30,000 immediate family members as well, totaling some 50,000 Afghans already approved and ready to go. The State Department tells CNN it had been managing to get only about 250 Afghans and their family members out of the country per week. At that rate, it will take nearly four years to get all SIV-approved Afghans and their families out to safety.
But those flights have stopped in recent weeks due to the World Cup being hosted in Qatar and are not expected to begin again until the new year. It is estimated that more than 100,000 more, who may be eligible but have yet to be approved, are waiting behind them.
Those months and years of waiting are not just frustrating. They can be dangerous. Many who served with the US military share accounts of the Taliban hunting them down. They move from safe house to safe house, if they have access to one, or travel around on their own, sometimes separate from their families.
This story has been updated with additional details.