America Has a Moral Responsibility to Refugees Fleeing Afghanistan | Opinion

Joe Biden was a freshman senator as the Vietnam War drew to a close. At that moment, the Ford administration was grappling with two critical questions. First, whether it was America's moral responsibility to repatriate Vietnamese who supported the United States during the war. And second, how might such a resettlement be accomplished.

We now know the dire consequences for those who were unable to leave Vietnam before the fall of Saigon. Many Vietnamese who remained were marked as collaborators with the U.S. and were sent to "reeducation camps," which included brutal forced prison labor and ideology training.

Forty-six years later, in the wake of another misguided war, President Biden now faces the same questions with regards to Afghanistan. For thousands of Afghans today, prison labor may seem like an attractive option—as opposed to the summary executions that the Taliban carried out on those supporting coalition forces.

As the Taliban continues to retake territory, the stakes for both those who assisted the U.S. (translators, guides, contractors, et cetera) and their families have never been higher as they face escalating threats, including the risk of death.

Although the current administration has voiced support for Afghans who helped the U.S. over the last 20 years, we must be careful not to confuse talking points or even intent with the successful execution of a policy. In a situation such as this, bureaucratic delays can literally mean death for those involved.

Such a policy failure occurred as recently as 2008, when the U.S. government created a special immigration program for Iraqis and Afghans. Although the program was well-intended, it was poorly managed, creating a massive backlog in which applicants would often wait years for status updates. The State Department has sought to correct the initial failures of the program, and since 2014, authorized 26,500 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Afghan nationals under the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009.

To address the current refugee crisis resulting from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden pledged that "those who helped us are not going to be left behind." And in Congress, the House recently passed the HOPE for Afghan SIVS Act, which is a critical step to ensure a swifter visa process for the estimated 18,000 Afghans who worked with the U.S. in support roles. The administration is also exploring Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as temporary havens while refugees are being processed for settlement in America.

 Children watch people at a camp
Children watch people at a camp for internally displaced people where new apartment buildings are located in Kabul on June 21, 2021. ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images

For interpreters, translators and others who supported the U.S., these individuals and their families can now rightfully claim that they face the threat of "persecution" for reasons of "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Their political choices have made them targets for Taliban retaliation and thus they qualify as refugees under international and U.S. law. This designation offers them protection under the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocols related to the status of refugees as well as under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

Both the HOPE for Afghans Act and current international law fall disastrously short in protecting other segments of the Afghan population who will undoubtedly lose significant freedoms, if not their lives, with greater Taliban control of the country. This is especially true for Afghan women and girls, who face threats not only to their safety but risk a return to pre-2001 Afghanistan with severe barriers to education and work outside the home.

Again, we are faced with a number of challenging questions: Where does America's moral responsibility to the Afghan people end and how feasible is it to scale up and execute a massive resettlement program? Will the U.S. have to grant asylum to the female half of the Afghan population? We should never blindly assume that all women from predominantly Muslim countries want to be "saved." However, in the specific case of Afghanistan, there is evidence that a growing percentage of Afghan women want the option of leaving the country, according to Gallup. Many took advantage of educational opportunities that would not have been present without the NATO intervention. Therefore, the international community must be ready for the potential outflow.

For those women and other groups who succeed in reaching international boundaries in the future or identify themselves to U.S. authorities while the embassy remains in Kabul (estimated at six to 12 months by skeptical U.S. intelligence officials), provisions for expatriation and asylum must be made.

Although it is impossible right now to reliably estimate the possible number of refugees, the U.S. has to be ready to meet a potential moral commitment on a scale similar to the 125,000 Vietnamese refugees granted asylum in the U.S. following that war.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter spoke about America's moral responsibility to those fleeing Vietnam: "The refugees who are now leaving Southeast Asia were our allies in the recent Vietnam War. They are leaving a country that had taken away their basic rights. They believe in individual worth, individual initiative and personal freedom. They're more philosophically attuned to us than the communist regime that has taken over."

As President Biden and Congress work to finalize and execute the HOPE for Afghan SIVS Act, leaders must focus on successfully executing the policy so that we can avoid a repeat of 2008 while simultaneously working to offer refuge to other at-risk populations in Afghanistan. A failure to accomplish either of these will come at great human cost.

Michael Doyle is a university professor at Columbia University and senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, directing the Model International Mobility Convention initiative.

Mark James Wood is a research fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs working on the Model International Mobility Convention.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.