US Senators Demand Biden Administration Rescue Afghan Women Leaders NOW
As the US government scrambles — belatedly, damn it — to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from the airport in Kabul, 46 members of the US Senate have called on the Biden administration to open up a new lifeline for Afghan women whose lives are in danger, now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan.
Currently, there are programs in place to help Afghans who assisted the US military, as well as special State Department visas available to help other Afghans who don't qualify for that program, like those who worked for non-military US agencies, nongovernmental organizations, or media outlets.
But even those expanded programs won't necessarily help Afghan women's rights advocates or women who served in government, the Afghan military, or other public roles that are likely to make them targets for Taliban reprisals. So the senators are calling on the administration to create a separate "humanitarian parole" category to allow such women to escape to the US, and to take steps to to speed up the processing of requests from all Afghan refugees.
In a letter sent yesterday to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, the senators requested help for the women. The letter was even bipartisan: mostly Democrats signed, but also three Republicans: Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), and Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma).
As US News 'splains,
Humanitarian parole is used to bring someone who is not otherwise eligible to enter the country, or who does not have a visa, into the U.S. temporarily because of an emergency or urgent humanitarian reason.
Why, yes, that does sound like the situation faced by many Afghan women. In particular, the senators asked the administration to rescue "women leaders, activists, human rights defenders, judges, parliamentarians, journalists, and members of the Female Tactical Platoon of the Afghan Special Security Forces."
Beyond that, the letter requests Homeland Security ramp up processing capacity within US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and calls for the appointment of an "interagency refugee coordinator" to make sure the process runs as smoothly as possible in an inherently chaotic situation. Finally, the letter urges the administration to make sure the Kabul airport remains open not only to US military aircraft, but also for flights chartered by NGOs working to get people out of Afghanistan, "even after U.S. Embassy personnel have been evacuated," and to make sure there's clear communication about how evacuees can get to the airport safely.
The letter outlines the need for urgent action:
The shocking violence and alleged atrocities occurring have caused mass displacement which, during a global pandemic and severe drought, has created a major humanitarian crisis. In areas captured by the Taliban, there are reports of war crimes including summary executions, public beatings and flogging of women, sexual violence and forced marriage, as well as clampdowns on media and other forms of communication.
We and our staff are receiving regular reports regarding the targeting, threatening, kidnapping, torturing, and assassinations of women for their work defending and promoting democracy, equality, higher education, and human rights.
The senators also note that while the State Department has expanded eligibility for existing programs to evacuate Afghans, "we must also protect those women who might fall through the cracks of the U.S. Government's response."
In particular, they point out that the newest category of emergency visa, the "Priority 2" program, was initially designed to allow NGOs, media organizations, and US agencies to refer Afghan employees whose applications would only be processed once the Afghans reached a third country on their own. With the Afghan government now gone, the letter points out, the limited processing capacity of the US Embassy staff still on the ground at the Kabul airport just won't work, so how about the US transports the women out first and then get the paperwork going, please.
In an early-August briefing on the Priority 2 visas, State Department officials said that while there were no plans for the US to relocate applicants and their families from Afghanistan at the time, that was subject to review depending on the "situation on the ground." Considering how little of that ground is left, we're hoping the senators' letter prompts that review — and fast, if it's even possible to get anyone out who hasn't already reached the Kabul airport.
The State Department says the Taliban has agreed to allow "safe passage" to civilians wanting to leave the country, and the US is increasing its evacuation flights, with a goal of flying out 5,000 to 9,000 people a day. But it appears fighters in Kabul may not have gotten the memo about that "safe passage" stuff. Today in Kabul, Afghans trying to reach the airport are facing Taliban roadblocks, intimidation at gunpoint, and beatings, as are American journalists covering the attempts to evacuate civilians:
"We had Taliban fighters all around … There was a consistent stream of gunfire," Clarissa Ward said on CNN's "New Day."
The gunmen even approached Ward and her team near the airport's perimeter as they reported on the chaos, shouting at her "to cover her face" and nearly pistol-whipping CNN senior field producer Brent Swails as he filmed video on his iPhone, she said.
"I've covered all sorts of crazy situations. This was mayhem. This was nuts," Ward said, describing one Taliban fighter who was hitting people with a whip fashioned out of a bicycle lock.
"It's very dicey, it's very dangerous, and it's completely unpredictable," she said. "There's no order, there's no coherent system for processing people … it's a miracle that more people haven't been very, very seriously hurt."
Ward said that getting to the airport, at least right now, is "impossible for an ordinary civilian, even if they have their paperwork. No way they're running that gauntlet, no way they're going to be able to navigate that."
If some kind of orderly evacuation plan can be established — diplomacy works sometimes! — The US needs to keep that airport open as long as humanly possible.
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