In the six months since the Taliban entered Kabul, taking control of Afghanistan, the United States has welcomed over 74,000 Afghans forced to flee their country. Some had to leave because they supported the U.S. mission, and some were human rights defenders, political activists or others at risk under the new government. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the evacuation was the largest since the Vietnam War.
“Operation Allies Welcome” has reached a key milestone, but the work of resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee has just begun. Find out what’s next for Afghan refugees in the U.S.
How resettlement agencies and the U.S. government welcomed over 70,000 Afghans
Afghans who arrived as part of “Operation Allies Welcome” were processed at one of nine “safe havens” set up at government facilities around the United States and operated in part by resettlement agencies like the IRC that have long helped welcome refugees. All but two are set to close in February of 2022.
At these safe havens, new arrivals are offered temporary accommodations and receive food, medical care and COVID-19 vaccinations. Interpreters are available in 40 languages, including Dari, Pashto and Urdu, to help newcomers through processing and next steps. Afghans remain at the safe havens until they are able to travel to the city or town where they will resettle.
Leaving behind your birthplace where you have spent 50 years of your life is difficult and heart-breaking.
The IRC alone deployed over 1,000 staff and volunteers to support this endeavor. The American public and businesses have stepped up as well, contributing $180,000 in in-kind donations—such as mobile-phone SIM cards and hygiene and baby supplies—to the IRC. Over the last six months, the IRC has also onboarded 2,000 new volunteers.
"Leaving behind your birthplace where you have spent 50 years of your life is difficult and heart-breaking," says 52-year-old Abdul*, who had to leave his two sons behind in Afghanistan. "You are going to a place where you do not know about your future except you have to work hard and struggle for your life."
The U.S. restores resettlement goals
Not only has the U.S. welcomed 74,000 Afghans within a matter of months, the country did so after years of record-low refugee arrivals.
Each year, the president sets a refugee resettlement goal through a policy directive called a "presidential determination.” The Trump Administration set record-lows nearly every year, ending with a resettlement goal of just 15,000 refugees for fiscal year 2021.
President Joe Biden has since raised the resettlement number to 125,000. That number does not include Afghans who came to the U.S. through “Operation Allies Welcome.”
As one of the nine resettlement agencies that support refugees arriving in the U.S., the IRC has served over 10,000 Afghan refugees since August 2021. That’s compared to just 4,000 refugees and other displaced people from around the world resettled by the IRC the year before.
The public overwhelmingly supports the U.S. opening its doors to Afghan refugees. Polling this fall showed that 81 percent of Americans believed that the U.S. should help its Afghan allies come to the country. In addition, both Republican and Democratic governors from 37 states have issued statements in support of the effort.
Will Afghans and other refugees still be coming to the U.S.?
Yes. Although most of the “safe havens” have closed, Afghans forced to flee their country will be welcomed into the U.S. through normal immigration and resettlement pathways, such as the presidential determination. Refugees from other countries will also continue to arrive through the regular resettlement process.
What happens next for Afghans in the U.S.?
Afghan refugees are finding jobs to support their family, enrolling their children in school, learning English if they don’t already speak it, and, generally, integrating into American society and culture. The challenges are many, including a nation-wide housing shortage and an ongoing pandemic that continues to delay access to many services and benefits, especially health care.
How does the IRC help Afghans arriving in U.S. communities?
We find homes and temporary housing when necessary, provide food (including a “welcome meal” from a local Afghan restaurant), emergency cash and a “welcome basket” with essentials hotels don’t provide. We offer COVID-19 health orientation and help newcomers apply for benefits. We also provide adult and youth education, immigration legal assistance, and support to find housing, employment and health care.
What can the U.S. government do to help Afghan refugees?
In order to bring Afghans to safety as quickly as possible, the U.S. admitted them under a process called “humanitarian parole.” That means that while they are temporarily allowed to stay in the country, they are not guaranteed a path to legal permanent residence and eventual citizenship. Instead, newly-arrived Afghans have to apply for permanent protection through the U.S. asylum system, which is already facing a backlog of cases.
This pathway is further complicated by the fact that many Afghans may have been advised for their safety to destroy identification documents, professional certifications, and other information that could be useful to pursue an asylum claim.
I want my children to have a brighter future.
The IRC and other organizations are helping many Afghans through the complicated asylum process, but it is critical that Congress ensures Afghans themselves are not punished for the emergency nature of the evacuation and limitations on the U.S. immigration system.
The IRC urges Congress to take up and pass the Afghan Adjustment Act to provide a pathway to lawful permanent residency for Afghan evacuees. Otherwise, because their humanitarian parole only lasts for two years, Afghans would soon lose access to employment, health care, and their legal right to reside in the U.S. Many would even be vulnerable to deportation back to a country they fled in fear—all through no fault of their own.
The Afghan Adjustment Act would also make it easier for people separated from close family members to help their loved ones come to the U.S. In the chaos of the emergency evacuation, some were forced to flee without their spouses or even children. Afghans who endured the trauma of having to flee their homes must not be stuck in limbo as they rebuild their lives in the U.S.
"I want my children to have a brighter future," says Ali*, 34, who came to the U.S. with his wife and children. "I myself did not have the opportunity to continue my studies, but at least I want my children to finish their higher education.”
How you can help Afghans in your community
Many Afghan families arrived with few belongings after fleeing for their lives and need housing, food, home goods and other basics as they get on their feet.
You can help by donating money or goods, or volunteering your time. Landlords may be able to help by renting apartments to refugees, and business owners by hiring refugees. Even if you don’t have a local IRC office welcoming Afghan families, you can still connect with us to help refugees and other new Americans. Learn more about how you can get involved.
*Names changed to protect privacy.