The Afghan Adjustment Act and the Moral Case for Refugee Protection

After over a decade of varying levels of military occupation, the United States withdrew its remaining troops from Afghanistan in August of 2021. This drawdown in troops and the subsequent military domination of Taliban forces has led to an increasingly repressive human rights situation in the country. Afghan girls have been barred from attending school past the 6th grade, instead confining them to their homes and forcing them to do domestic labour. Afghan women have been banned from working for NGOs, boarding flights without a male chaperone, appearing on entertainment television, and more. And while women and girls have been most impacted by the Taliban’s repressive regime, any Afghan who speaks out against the Taliban or is seen to have collaborated with American forces during the occupation is in danger of wrongful detention, torture, and execution.

In response to this developing situation, the Biden administration evacuated some 76,000 Afghans likely to be targeted by the Taliban and provided them with temporary protection in the United States under “humanitarian parole”. This designation provides for 2 years of residence after which time those humanitarian parolees will need to apply for asylum, a process which is especially fraught in the US with multi-year wait times for approval and potential disaster for those Afghans if denied. Currently, the US Congress is struggling to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow Afghans to apply for permanent status after a one-year period of humanitarian parole. Similar legislation has been passed during previous refugee crises, including after the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam. For over a year now, however, this bill has been unable to make it past Republican opposition in Congress and represents a terrifying potential moral failure of the United States to provide protection for those fleeing a situation directly caused by US intervention.

The Situation in Afghanistan

While the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the US-led coalition was marked by political instability and human rights abuses including torture, many civil and political freedoms that had been revoked under Taliban rule in the 1990s were restored. Women’s rights in particular saw a resurgence during the occupation period as the Taliban’s strict patriarchal rule was cast out. This period saw the reinstatement of the rights of women to participate in politics, access education and healthcare, work, and move around publicly without a male chaperone.

After the swift exit of coalition forces in August of 2021, the Taliban quickly regained control of the country in a military campaign characterized by violent retaliation and violations of the laws of war. Since then, in addition to revoking women’s rights in the country, the Taliban government has cracked down on journalists, protesters, and activists in a sweeping effort to crush political freedoms. Those who are believed to have assisted in any way with the democratization efforts along with human rights defenders and advocates are now routinely targeted by the Taliban and find themselves detained, beaten, or executed.

Despite being aware of this likely outcome, the United States in particular did little to evacuate or assist those facing impending danger during the troop drawdown. In all, the hasty effort to rescue endangered Afghans accomplished the evacuation of around 76,000 to the United States. Nearly all these Afghans now remain in the U.S. under humanitarian parole.

Source: MPR News

The Situation in the United States

The United States currently faces an immense backlog of asylum cases, with nearly 1.6 million cases currently pending within various agencies. As a result, the average wait time for an asylum decision is over four years. During the wait, asylum seekers in the United States have limited access to certain social services and government resources and find themselves in emotionally and logistically uncertain positions. For example, an asylum applicant must wait 150 days from the date of their application to seek employment permission, and many employers are hesitant to hire and promote asylum seekers who may be denied refugee status and forced to leave the country. The protracted asylum process is also bureaucratically difficult and often requires legal and translation assistance.

Without targeted legislation, this is the uncertain and difficult future that awaits the Afghans who fled the Taliban after the U.S. troop withdrawal. To that end, the Afghan adjustment act provides a direct path to permanent residence for Afghans on humanitarian parole which would bypass the need for asylum application. While there is bipartisan support for the bill, a handful of Republicans have blocked progress on its passage citing security concerns. Underlying this security concern is an insistence that not all of those on humanitarian parole are deserving of long-term protection via citizenship. The political and moral debate now breaks down to those who say that the United States is primarily to blame for the situation in Afghanistan and thus has a responsibility to protect those fleeing the resultant danger and those who fear a policy that is “too inclusive” and presents a threat to domestic security.

Source: Amnesty International

The Moral Case for Refugee Protection

It is a fact that the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan created an unstable climate for an entire generation of Afghans, many of whom were compelled and encouraged to participate in civil society and assist democratization efforts. This ranges from those who directly assisted the U.S. military in operations against the Taliban, to women engaging in political activism, to the founding of Afghan NGOs and nonprofits to increase access to healthcare and alleviate poverty. Anyone who had a hand in any of these efforts is now a potential target of the Taliban government, which was able to take power after negotiations with the Trump Administration and the subsequent withdrawal of troops by the Biden Administration.

For these reasons, it is hardly a leap to lay blame at the feet of the U.S. and its coalition allies. Most Americans feel this way, and support for the Afghan Adjustment Act is overwhelming, which speaks to the understanding of moral responsibility in this case. It is frankly abhorrent that in the nearly two years since its proposal the Afghan Adjustment Act has failed to even reach a vote on the floor of Congress.

This failure, however, is indicative of a larger failure of refugee-receiving countries to understand their moral responsibility and obligations to refugees and asylum seekers. The current international legal framework surrounding refugees is inadequate to address refugee crises as we have seen time and again in recent decades. The moral failing of the United States to swiftly pass the Afghan Adjustment Act is a lesson in the danger of dealing with refugee crises in a patchwork fashion. And the support expressed by most Americans for a straightforward path to protection for Afghans is indicative of an understanding that countries who bear responsibility for refugee-creating events ought to provide solutions for those displaced.

Until lawmakers and world leaders incorporate this understanding of moral responsibility to the international refugee law regime, those most in need of protection will continue to be marginalized. The consequences of each future crisis will echo those of the past and present until institutional changes are made to preemptively address the causes of displacement and provide enhanced protections to refugee populations. In the meantime, the least that lawmakers in the United States can do is take the step to extend these protections to Afghans forced to flee a country badly mangled by years of U.S. military operations. If the Afghan Adjustment Act is passed before the August 2023 deadline, perhaps there is hope for a larger shift in thought that would secure a better future for refugees around the world.