NEW YORK, NEW YORK, Dec. 2, 2021 – The U.S. departments of State and Defense are failing to follow through on resettlement of tens of thousands of Afghans, including journalists who adopted American-style media practices during the 20-year U.S. presence in Afghanistan, a coalition of organizations coordinated by the Overseas Press Club of America has concluded.
More than 90 days after the collapse of the Afghan government, the State Department has largely stalled visa approvals for Afghan journalists who wish to emigrate and for thousands of Afghan journalists in third countries seeking entry into the U.S.
For hundreds of Afghan journalists already on U.S. military bases inside the U.S., visas and work permits have been painfully slow to materialize. “The immigration business is a mess,” said Tom Willard, consultant to the Pajhwok news agency, one of the dominant news organizations in Afghanistan.
There are several different categories of refugee visas – Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) are the most highly sought after. There are also Priority 1 and Priority 2 visas, as well as parole visas for urgent humanitarian or public–benefit reasons. Several members of the OPC’s Afghan coalition reported in a video meeting on Nov. 30 that the State Department is accepting only SIV visas bearing a special foil of approval, Green Card holders and U.S. citizens.
According to the U.S. government, the State Department has issued 15,600 SIV approvals and has a backlog of 18,000 requests. Some 28,000 Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole but only 100 have been approved. No Priority 2 visas, the most common category for journalists, have been approved.
Commanders of U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf also have stopped granting permission to civilian charter flights from Afghanistan to land at their bases. “It appears that the U.S. government is giving up on what some would call its sacred duty to help Afghans who implemented the model of free speech and independent media that we prescribed to them and which Afghans said they wanted,” said Willard, a veteran and management consultant who helped Pajhwok get started in 2002.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) and others have introduced a bill in Congress that would compel the State Department to process P-1 and P-2 visa requests.
The State Department, which is the lead agency for Afghan refugees, has not yet responded publicly to comments from AfghanEvac, a coalition of more than 100 groups dedicated to helping Afghans at risk inside their country, that the U.S. government is proceeding too slowly. AfghanEvac held a virtual meeting with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in late November.
The visa chaos is making it difficult for Afghan news organizations to reconfigure themselves with offices in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere, should the Taliban decide to shut down the independent media in Afghanistan. Pajhwok’s editor-in-chief, Danish Karokhel, wants to establish an editing hub in Atlanta, but he is stuck in France without permission to travel. His No. 2 editor, Javed Hamim Kakar, reached Atlanta only on Nov. 29 after spending months at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.
Many of the Afghan journalists on U.S. military bases report that they lost their electronic devices during transit, meaning they are urgently in need of computers, smart phones, cameras and voice recorders. They also say that it’s difficult to work in the camps because they don’t have private space and Wi-Fi connections are spotty. There are about 53,000 Afghans at eight U.S. military bases, about half of them children, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Ten Afghan news organizations, including Pajhwok, TOLONews and the Kilid Group, are still operating in Afghanistan, although they are under constant threat of being shut down. The Taliban appears to be tolerating the continued operation of independent media because it wants to establish an image of being a legitimate government worthy of diplomatic relations and foreign aid, which has been largely cut off.
William J. Holstein, co-chair of the OPC’s Afghan coalition, said that keeping those Afghan news organizations alive in whatever structures they create will be essential to finding employment for the hundreds of Afghan journalists seeking to create new lives. “From speaking with many of the journalists at U.S. military bases, only a handful have English-language skills that would allow them to work at American media organizations,” Holstein said. “If they are going to survive, they need to continue to work for the Afghan organizations, which is why the visa process is so critical. They need to be allowed to establish their editing and reporting hubs outside of Afghanistan.”
Other organizations and individuals at the Nov. 30 meeting included the Committee to Protect Journalists; the Coalition for Women in Journalism; Operation 620 (which aims to fly out 620 Afghans from their country by the end of 2021); Robert Nickelsberg, a photographer who worked in Afghanistan for 30 years; Vanessa Gezari of The Intercept; Farnaz Fassihi of The New York Times who sits on the OPC board; and William Gentile of American University, a member of the OPC Foundation’s board.
Contact: Patricia Kranz, OPC Executive Director, firstname.lastname@example.org