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'There's No Holiday From History': America's Approach To Afghan Refugees09:41
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Afghan refugees, who fled Afghanistan in 1996, hold US flag as they attend a rally in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, on Aug. 19, 2021. (Vyachslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan refugees, who fled Afghanistan in 1996, hold US flag as they attend a rally in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, on Aug. 19, 2021. (Vyachslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of Afghan refugees rescued by American forces will soon arrive in cities throughout the United States.

President Biden wants to present a more compassionate stance on immigration after four years of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric from the Trump administration. But conservative pundits are already spreading fear-mongering about unvetted groups arriving.

Afghanistan has the second largest number of refugees in the world. The country faces three humanitarian crises right now, says David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

Tens of thousands of people are trying to get their paperwork completed or recognized so they can leave the country, he says. Recent fighting displaced half a million people, who were forced to flee villages taken over by the Taliban and left with nothing.

“The third humanitarian crisis is half the country depends on humanitarian aid,” Miliband says. “There's a drought that affects 80% of the country. There's COVID vaccines for less than 10% of the country.

Countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. need to deliver on the promises of refuge that were made to Afghans who worked alongside their troops, he says.

Many of the Afghans who worked with the U.S. military have waited for years for visas to come to the United States. Only a fraction of the known 300,000 qualify for refugee protection in the U.S.

Bureaucracy is slowing the U.S. down on delivering these visas, Miliband says.

People who worked with the U.S. military can apply for the Special Immigrant Visa Program, a process with a congressionally mandated limit of 10,000 spots. Priority 2 visas include a wider scope of people including media or contractors to the U.S. government.

But paperwork gets lost and people struggle to get to interviews, so the U.S. needs to do everything possible to prevent people from getting stuck in Afghanistan, he says.

“It's very, very important that because the United States [and] other countries made a promise to these people that it's fulfilled,” he says. “And frankly, [refugees] don't want to hear that we haven't got the resources to put the systems in place because our countries are many times richer than theirs.”

People are making huge decisions to uproot their families just to find themselves in limbo — unaware of whether or not they can leave, he says.

“[Afghan refugees] don't want to give up hope. They don't want to believe that the promises were false,” he says, “but they see reality staring in their face and they're having to figure out how to get up in the morning and live under a new regime.”

The International Rescue Committee’s Afghan staff want to maintain the progress they’ve made — but that’s not possible without humanitarian, political and diplomatic support, Miliband says. The staff feels afraid for the future and their families.

Miliband, the former foreign secretary of the U.K., says European leaders welcomed the Biden administration taking office and now look to the U.S. for “commitment” and “steadiness.”

But leaders are concerned about the potential for long-term, global effects of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, he says. The U.K. values its relationship with neighboring Pakistan, for example.

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“What starts in Afghanistan doesn't stop in Afghanistan. That was shockingly revealed on 9/11 20 years ago,” he says. “And it's still very much in the European mind I think at the moment. “

The context surrounding the “democratic experiment of the United States” has changed over the last 30 years, Miliband says: The combined income of dictatorships is greater than that of Western democracies, including the U.S., for the first time in a century.

Countries like the U.S. have a responsibility to serve as an effective global force, he says.

“We have a responsibility not just to fix our own roof,” he says. “And if that's not going to mean military commitment in Afghanistan — and it won't — it needs to mean humanitarian, political, diplomatic commitment.”

Canada announced it will take in 20,000 Afghan refugees. The Biden administration needs to match and expand on that commitment, he says, and European countries also need to step up.

The U.S. is polarized on helping refugees. Miliband finds it encouraging that a Pew Research Center analysis concluded two-thirds of Americans “support taking in refugees fleeing war or violence.”

And he points out that some of the most prominent voices in the U.S. today — business leaders, sports stars, politicians — are refugees.

“[Refugees] need to be enabled to tell their refugee story because you couldn't find a more patriotic or productive group of American citizens than those who know the value of freedom,” he says, “because they've had it denied.”


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 19, 2021.

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