The United States said on Monday it was ready to take in thousands more Afghans whose US links put them at risk from the Taliban as Western troops leave, but the asylum-seekers will face an arduous journey to safety.
Less than a month before the United States is set to end its longest-ever war, the State Department expanded the eligibility of refugee admissions beyond the roughly 20,000 Afghans who have applied under a program for interpreters who assisted US forces and diplomats.
"In light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the US government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States," the State Department said in a statement.
"This designation expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their US affiliation," it said.
The State Department said that the expanded eligibility will include Afghans who worked with US-based media organizations or non-governmental organisations or on projects backed by US funding.
The State Department will also let in more Afghans who served as interpreters or in other support roles to forces of the US-led coalition but did not meet earlier requirements on time served.
A first group of more than 200 interpreters were flown into the United States on Friday as part of what has been dubbed Operation Allied Refuge amid gains on the ground by the Taliban.
Unlike with the interpreters, the United States said it had no immediate plans to fly out the newly eligible Afghans.
Instead, they will need to find their own way out of Afghanistan and support themselves during the lengthy process.
"However, we continue to review the situation on the ground, and we continue to examine all options to protect those who served with or for us," a US official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The applicants cannot seek directly to come to the United States but need to have referrals by their current or former employers. Once they make it outside Afghanistan, processing will take one year to 14 months, the official said.
Another US official said that Washington, while not helping the new applicants escape, has asked other countries including Pakistan to keep their borders open to them.
On Monday, the United States and Britain jointly accused the Taliban of massacring civilians in a town they recently captured in a southern district of the country
The other major recipient of Afghan refugees is Iran, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States.
The second US official said that potential applicants had already moved on from Iran to Turkey, already the temporary home to millions of refugees from Syria.
The State Department is designating the new refugees under so-called Priority 2, the same level given to persecuted minorities from a number of countries.
President Joe Biden has ordered a withdrawal of remaining US troops by the end of the month, ending the longest war in US history.
With the Taliban going on the offensive, the Biden administration acknowledges fears for the stability of the internationally backed government.
But it insists that the United States has done all that it can and long ago accomplished its stated mission of eliminating Al qaeda extremists who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.
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