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IRC's process to help resettle tens of thousands of Afghan refugees


It's been a little over a month since the American military withdrew from Afghanistan. And over time, the disturbing scenes of Afghans pouring into the airport or gathering outside in an effort to flee have faded from view. But we wanted to know what has happened since and how the global effort to resettle Afghan refugees is going, so we've called David Miliband. He is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, one of the leading groups working to help. David Miliband, thank you so much for joining us once again.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you so much for your interest in this really important story.

MARTIN: So first, as we said, your group, the IRC, is one of a number helping Afghan refugees. Do you have a sense of how many Afghans are looking to be resettled around the world right now?

MILIBAND: Yes, we do. The International Rescue Committee has about 1,700 staff in Afghanistan, and we're also the largest refugee resettlement agency here in the U.S., with 25 offices across the country and a partnership with the US government at the government facilities where Afghans are arriving. And so we're registering all of those Afghans who are arriving in the United States.

What we know is that over 50,000 of those who made it to Kabul Airport have now made it to the U.S., and they are being processed to make sure that their documentation is right, that they figure out any U.S. ties they have because some of them have relatives here, that they get their health care sorted out. And then they're able to move into the community so that they can begin the passage to work into American life.

MARTIN: I want to talk about two distinct groups of people - the people who are already in the United States and the people who are still overseas. A number of countries assisted with the evacuation of civilians after the Taliban took control of Kabul in mid-August. But we do understand that many people were flown to third countries to wait for their applications for special visas to be processed - about 15,000 people. Is that about right?

MILIBAND: There's about 15,000 people who are in the care of the U.S. government in third countries. They're often in U.S. military bases around the world, and they're on their way here. There's another group who are not in the care of the U.S. government but found their way out through charities. I'd number them more in the hundreds than in the thousands. But in countries like Mexico or Uganda or countries as far-flung as Mexico and Uganda, there are Afghans there who need our help.

MARTIN: And what are their circumstances? Talk about that, if you would. Like, what is the process for assisting these folks?

MILIBAND: Well, the Afghans who have made it to the United States, on the one hand, they are - and they know it - they're the lucky ones. They have safety. They have a clear path, albeit sometimes a bureaucratic one, to register here, to be able to make a new life, to get on the path to a green card and to citizenship. Thanks to some work in Congress last week, there is now funding for them to arrive, and there are guarantees about their health care and their health insurance and their employment status. So they know that they are on the right side of history in that sense.

They also know - and this is the tragic story because I was, last week, meeting Afghans at one of the government facilities where we're working in Virginia, and for every Afghan who's here, they've got, in many, many cases, six, 10, 15 relatives who are still in Afghanistan, sometimes their very close relatives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. And so the Afghans who are here are pulled in two directions - on the one hand, relief, on the other hand, fear for the relatives who are still in the country. And so there's a real sense of trauma, I think, among the Afghans who've made it, albeit with a high and heavy sense of gratitude to the U.S. for taking them in.

MARTIN: In your opinion, what are some of the obstacles to getting people resettled?

MILIBAND: The biggest obstacles are, first of all, the cost of housing. Secondly, we know it's a tight labor market. So there's a chance to get jobs, but we need to do a better job of matching the Afghans who are arriving, some of whom have high skills - translators, for example - others of whom have less skills. We need to match them properly into employment. And also, there's a softer side to this, which is that these people have been through trauma. And it's one thing for a 6-year-old or an 8-year-old or a 10-year-old who's seen gunfire, who's seen a bombing, who's seen the kind of scenes that you saw at Kabul Airport - it's one thing to find that child a school. It's another thing to help them find the kind of mind space and calm to be able to learn, especially given it's a new language and it's a whole new world for them.

MARTIN: You know, you make an important point that the story doesn't end just because people have touched ground here, that just because the plane has landed here and that there's physical safety here, that the experience doesn't just, you know, evaporate. Is there something that communities who wish to support these people can be thinking about going forward? I see that in a number of communities, people are already rallying to provide, like, physical comfort - right? - they have the sheets and towels and furniture. You know, there are - I see this thing all over the country. There are, you know, groups and communities and neighborhoods kind of rallying, gathering goods for people to try to make them welcome. But is there something else that people could be thinking about?

MILIBAND: Yes. You're making a really important point, which is that it's not just ticking a box marked resettlement. It's an ambition of integration and contribution to American life. It means being part of a real community. And there is a lot that can be done. Of course, the generosity of beds and furniture and clothes is welcome, but the buddying of a 10-year-old boy from the U.S. with a 10-year-old boy from Afghanistan or a 6-year-old girl with a 6-year-old girl, that's important. The employer who says, look, I want to give these people a chance to get onto the job ladder, the neighbor who says, look, I don't speak Pashtu, and you don't speak English, but we can still communicate with each other, and we can still help each other feel safe, and we can make a connection - that kind of voluntary effort is absolutely critical to success.

Every resettlement agency - there are nine in total - will want to have volunteers who can help these Afghans. And it's worth saying, too, that the government is interested. The U.S. administration is interested in some reforms to the way resettlement is done. All of that, I think, is part of using this crisis to make sure we educate ourselves about what a refugee is - someone who's fleeing from persecution - and step up to help improve our own society as well as to give them a new chance.

MARTIN: That was David Miliband. He's president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Mr. Miliband, thank you for talking with us.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much for your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.