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U.S. has no clear bureaucratic plan for Afghan evacuees

For those Afghans who braved the Taliban’s violence and desperate crowds to get to the Kabul airport, their challenges do not end when they arrive. The process for getting Afghans to the United States is full of logistical and bureaucratic challenges. Lisa Desjardins has been talking to lawmakers, NGO workers, refugees and others about those shortcomings and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For those Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban, the challenges begin well before they decide to leave their homes. But if they do make it to the airport, the process for leaving the country is full of logistical and bureaucratic challenges.

    Our Lisa Desjardins has been talking to American lawmakers, to international nonprofit agency workers, to refugees themselves and others about these shortcomings, these challenges. And she joins me now.

    So, Lisa, as we said, you have been talking to all these folks. You have been talking to people around the country. You shared your notes with those in the middle of a night, in fact, last night.

    Tell us what is happening at this point with all these efforts to get these Afghans to safety.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes, I spent days working on this.

    And I have to say, it would be an improvement to call this a bureaucratic nightmare. It is not even clear what the bureaucratic path is for some of these Afghans.

    Essentially, what you have right now is an army, an undesignated volunteer army of NGOs, and, honestly, thousands of individual Americans who have some close or sometimes even not very close relationship with an Afghan family that is pleading for help to try and navigate the path that Jane was reporting for.

    How do you get that application to the gate of the Kabul Airport? And even is — what is that worth? So, right now, we have a situation where even congressional offices, which we know obviously do have a priority path to the State Department, even they are having trouble figuring out, how can you get any visa? Which kind of visa is working?

    The kinds of documents they're asking for are changing on a regular basis. And we spoke to one of these congressmen, Representative Mike Gallagher. He's actually a retired Marine intelligence officer. And even he has had trouble getting through the people that he thinks needs to get out.

    Here's what he said.

  • Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI):

    It shouldn't take having to call a member of Congress, let alone be a member of Congress, to get help.

    I mean, if you're an American or if you're an Afghan that risked your life to fight with us, we should be doing everything possible to protect you right now and get you out of the country. And so it's unfortunate that we're having to make up a lot of this process on the fly. I think it speaks to the level of planning that did not occur on the front end.

    But that's where we are.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now some people would call this a digital Dunkirk.

    I think it's actually worse than that. I spoke to one Afghan here who's trying to get his family out. He was a translator for the U.S. He said, when you are drowning, you reach for anything. This is like Afghans drowning in the dark. They don't know if there is a way out. They're trying to reach for anything they can.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, are they — what would you say is the attitude of the Afghans? I mean, are they able to hold out any hope?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes, I have been hearing stories of Afghans who are in hiding in Kabul, not even attempting to get to the airport yet, because they're waiting for the paperwork, if it ever comes.

    And they actually do have hope. And those here in this country, Afghan refugees, do have hope. But I have to say it's difficult for the NGOs and the Americans who are helping them, because the Americans aren't so sure that that hope is justified. They're not sure that the paths really exist.

    Once the Afghans connect with an American, oh, I think I have the contact that will get me through. But the Americans and even members of Congress are really not so sure. There is one reason to hope in the last couple of days. The numbers of people getting out of Kabul have increased dramatically.

    We have seen for the last two days 10,000 evacuees today, 10,000 yesterday. So, total — this is unbelievable — almost 50,000 people have been evacuated by the U.S. in the last week. That is a reason for hope. However, as Jane reports, it's still chaos at the airport.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And a week to go.

    And, finally, Lisa, what about those refugees who are able to get out and some who have already come to the United States?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Americans should realize they have come to the United States. There will be a huge need for these refugees as they come.

    And I want to look at some of the numbers that we're talking about, why this is such an issue of proportion. There are 34, 500 visas available for special immigrants out of Afghanistan. Many of those have been used. There are still some 14,000 available.

    But then look at this number, the number of Afghans affiliated with the U.S. in our 20 years there, 300,000. So we're talking about hundreds of thousands of Afghans who may have need. How many will come here, we don't know. But we know that now refugee agencies, including one here in the Washington area, really need resources. The refugees are coming, some with 4I.D., some not, by the way.

    And I think this is going to be a very long story that we're going to have to pay a lot of attention to. We also need to watch the Department of Defense. There are just — discussion of whether the Department of Defense needs to house more of these refugees as they come here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I'm old enough to remember when all this was happening after Vietnam, Vietnamese refugees.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A lot of people remember that.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Longstanding story. That went on for a very long time.

    Lisa Desjardins, so important. Thank you very much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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