As tens of thousands of Afghan refugees enter US, the support systems is faltering

In this undated photo, a woman and a child are seen walking toward a makeshift tent at the Nawabad Farabi-ha camp for internally displaced people in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Since the recent US pullout from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of refugees have arrived in the United States. Photo credit: UNHCR/Edris Lufti
In this undated photo, a woman and a child are seen walking toward a makeshift tent at the Nawabad Farabi-ha camp for internally displaced people in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Since the recent US pullout from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of refugees have arrived in the United States. Photo credit: UNHCR/Edris Lufti

By Aparna Davé and Om Desai

From allotting more resources and providing health insurances to addressing their legal status, the United States needs to do more to help the Afghan refugees.

After 19 years and 10 months, the war in Afghanistan has ended. Though the end of a war is supposed to bring joy and happiness, in this case, it has started a new chapter of struggle. As US troops left Afghanistan, the Taliban began to take over the war-torn country. By August 15, 2021, Afghanistan was already under the Taliban control, and on August 30, 2021, the last US airlift took off from Afghanistan.

And in the blink of an eye, the country was thrown into a state of chaos, and many Afghans were forced to flee their homes. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that over half a million Afghans have or will become refugees by the end of 2021.

Once the mass exodus, countries such as Canada, Australia, Mexico, the UK and Costa Rica pledged support to refugees escaping from Afghanistan. So far, the US has admitted and dispersed 37,000 Afghans across the country, with California receiving the largest share. By the end of the current fiscal year, the United States expects 125,000 total refugees, all of whom will need housing and living amenities. This economic obstacle, along with other legal and logistical issues, makes this refugee situation unique.

Under the previous Trump administration, US refugee limits were decreased and harsher policies were instituted. These changes resulted in the closure of more than 100 refugee settlement offices, which put a strain on those remaining centers, especially during the arrival of vast swaths of Afghan refugees.

Furthermore, refugees were not being let into the US through the normal channels. Usually, refugees would apply for Special Immigrant Visa, or a P2 Refugee Visa. Both could take years, which would put lives of those fleeing Taliban in danger. To bypass this, the refugees were given humanitarian parole.

READ: Afghanistan: a country of million tragedies (August 19, 2021)

This ‘parole’ designation has been used previously as well. In 1957, more than 27,000 Hungarian refugees were allowed to come to the country after the Hungarian Revolution. Then, more than 45 years ago, in April of 1975, 170,000 Vietnamese refugees were brought into the US with this label after the Fall of Saigon, when the Viet Cong took control of the capital of South Vietnam. Also, 6,600 Iraqi refugees were given this parole after the 1996 withdrawal of US troops from Baghdad. Most recently, in 2007, an unknown number of Iraqi interpreters were given refuge through this designation after Iraq was found to be stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

Pushing aside the immigration legalities, the economics behind this influx of refugees is another issue. In general, resettling a refugee in a new country costs anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000. For Afghan refugees, the State Department was able to scrape together $2,275 per refugee. Keep in mind, as the US dealt with the Afghan situation, they were also attempting to maintain stability on the Mexican border. Regardless, the refugees were successfully relocated. But now, the focus had changed. Instead of scrambling to bring refugees into the US, we need to figure out what to do once they have arrived.

The Confusion of the Arrival

With the uniquely quick pace of incoming Afghan refugees, the systems around refugee support are faltering. As mentioned, money for relocation was an issue, but helping the refugees live successfully with the money provided is another barrier. Moreover, while usual refugee visas grant access to medical insurance, under parole, the rules for insurance are blurred.

Fortunately, the government provided each refugee with 30 days of Medicaid. But what happens if a refugee requires medical insurance 31 days from their arrival? That is a challenge that must be tackled as soon as possible. But insurance isn’t the only looming deadline for an Afghan refugee. The humanitarian parole designation only lasts two years, which means the refugees need to immediately seek alternate legal visas they can apply for. Some will find families to reunite with, but others will be forced to seek asylum, which already has a massively backlogged system.

First and foremost, the US did not wholly underperform in rescuing the refugees, which was consistent with its track record before the previous presidency. In fact, the efficiency of the rescue operations was surprising given the policies of the preceding president. However, there are questions still left unanswered. Those rolled-back policies and budget cuts have directly damaged the domestic control over refugee relocation.

Non-governmental groups that helped with this process relied on governmental funds to help relocate refugees. Thus, with the meager amount of money allotted to each refugee, the future of this crisis remains unclear. How will the government react to more Afghan refugees coming to the US? What will happen to the refugees currently being held on military bases around the world? Will refugee medical insurance be reinstated after it runs out? Where will the funding come from to help settle newcomers? Will policies be implemented that help create a path from humanitarian parole to permanent legal status in the US?

Questions such as these should be the focus of the next governmental discussion regarding Afghan refugees. The US has a strong legacy in dealing with refugees, and hopefully, this record will continue to be positive in the aftermath of this situation.

(Aparna Dave is attorney at Law Office of Aparna Davé in Gaithersburg, MD. Om Desai is a Technical Specialist at Davé Law Group.)

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