How many Afghans need to be evacuated?

With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, there has been an urgent need to evacuate Afghans who are at risk of Taliban reprisals. This includes Afghans who worked with the US and allied forces, as well as activists, journalists, and others who may be targeted by the Taliban. Determining exactly how many Afghans need evacuation is a complex question without a simple answer.

Afghan allies who qualify for special immigrant visas

One major category of Afghans needing evacuation are those who worked closely with the US military and government agencies during the 20-year war. These Afghans were promised special immigrant visas (SIVs) to resettle in the US in return for their service. However, the SIV process has been notoriously slow, leaving many waiting years for their visas to be approved.

As of July 2021, there was a backlog of around 20,000 Afghan SIV applicants already at some stage of the visa process. With the collapse of the Afghan government, the White House has said it will evacuate all remaining SIV applicants who want to leave. Estimates of the number still needing evacuation range from 50,000 up to 80,000+ when family members are included.

SIV qualification requirements

To qualify for a Afghan SIV, an applicant must:

  • Have worked for or on behalf of the US government in Afghanistan for at least 2 years
  • Provide a positive written recommendation from a US supervisor
  • Pass security screening checks

Immediate family members of the principal SIV applicant can also qualify for evacuation. With an average of 5 family members per SIV applicant, the total number needing evacuation quickly mounts.

Afghans who do not qualify for SIVs

In addition to Afghan SIV recipients and applicants, there are many other Afghans urgently needing evacuation who do not qualify for the SIV program. These include:

  • Former employees of US-funded projects in Afghanistan who did not directly work for the US government
  • Human rights activists
  • Women’s rights advocates
  • Journalists and media workers
  • Judges and legal professionals
  • Academics
  • LGBTQ individuals
  • Members of ethnic and religious minority groups like the Hazara who are targeted by the Taliban

There are no definitive counts of how many at-risk Afghans fall into these non-SIV categories. But estimates range from tens of thousands up to hundreds of thousands who would face danger under Taliban rule.

P1 and P2 refugee programs

Some number of these Afghans who worked with US interests or are vulnerable to Taliban persecution can qualify for refugee status under Priority 1 and Priority 2 refugee programs:

  • P1 – Individuals with compelling protection needs. This includes persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ individuals, victims of violence, and female heads of households.
  • P2 – Groups with special humanitarian concerns identified by the US. This includes Afghan human rights activists, journalists, and other civil society leaders.

These P1 and P2 programs can provide a pathway to resettlement for Afghans most at risk. However, like the SIV process, the traditional refugee process tends to be slow, with long case backlogs.

Estimating total evacuation numbers

Given the challenges estimating the numbers within each vulnerable population, projections of the total number of Afghans needing evacuation vary widely:

  • 50,000 – 70,000: Afghanistan SIV recipients and applicants only
  • 80,000 – 150,000: SIVs plus immediate family members
  • 200,000+: SIVs and other vulnerable groups like women leaders, human rights activists, etc.
  • 300,000+: Previous estimates plus downstream family members and expanded groups

Some evacuation advocates argue the US and allies have a moral duty to evacuate all at-risk Afghans who want to leave, potentially between 300,000 – 500,000 people when accounting for extended family dependents.

Others counter that logistical constraints make an evacuation on that scale impossible. Prioritizing those who directly assisted the US mission and are most under threat is the only realistic option.

How many have been evacuated so far?

As of September 2021, approximately 124,000 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan in the initial airlift operation immediately after Kabul fell to the Taliban.

This included:

  • 6,000 American citizens
  • 4,500 SIV holders and applicants
  • Their family members (around 53,000 people)
  • Other vulnerable Afghans able to get to Kabul airport before evacuation ended

Most went to temporary bases in Europe or the Middle East for processing. As of September 2021, approximately 53,000 Afghans had arrived in the US for resettlement so far.

Experts estimate at least 250,000 vulnerable Afghans remain to be evacuated and resettled long-term. Further large-scale evacuations have not occurred since the initial airlift ended.

Ongoing evacuation efforts

With Kabul airport inoperable, ongoing evacuations have been limited to sporadic charter flights organized by advocacy groups or covert operations by intelligence agencies.

Obstacles include:

  • Difficulty smuggling Afghans past Taliban checkpoints to get on flights
  • Negotiating passage out of the country with the Taliban
  • Justifying the inclusion of non-SIV Afghans on manifests

Qatar and other third countries have acted as transit points. But long-term resettlement solutions are lacking for Afghans without visas or refugee status already secured.

Countries housing evacuated Afghans

Most evacuated Afghans are still residing in temporary housing on military bases in Europe, the Middle East, and the US while their cases are processed.

Bases housing significant numbers of evacuees include:

  • Ramstein Air Base, Germany
  • Naval Station Rota, Spain
  • Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar
  • Fort McCoy, Wisconsin
  • Fort Bliss, Texas

The following table summarizes estimated Afghan evacuee populations by country as of November 2021:

Country Number of evacuees
Germany 21,000
Italy 5,000
Spain 2,500
Kosovo 800
Albania 450
United States 53,000
Uganda 1,700
Rwanda 500
Qatar 8,000
United Arab Emirates 12,000

The US has committed to resettling up to 95,000 Afghans this year and has pressure from evacuation advocates to increase that quota further.

Challenges housing evacuees

Both US military bases and Afghanistan’s neighboring countries are straining to house the influx of evacuees.

Challenges include:

  • Overcrowded conditions in temporary tent housing
  • Language barriers between Afghans and host country residents
  • Cultural tensions with local communities
  • Shortages of food and medical care
  • Bureaucratic backlogs processing paperwork

Wealthy nations like the US and Germany have the most resources to absorb incoming Afghans. But they are still struggling to find long-term housing beyond military bases.

Meanwhile, countries like Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have taken in hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban rule. But they lack infrastructure and aid to support them.

Call for international support

Aid groups have called for increased international support to resettle Afghans and provide funding for both transit and permanent resettlement locations. They argue the Afghan refugee crisis demands a global response on par with Syrian and Rohingya refugee crises.

But some nations have been reluctant to resettle significant numbers of Afghan evacuees due to domestic political controversies over refugee policy.

Ongoing evacuation policy debate

There is significant debate among policymakers and experts on how to balance the urgent humanitarian imperative to evacuate Afghans at risk with concerns over security, cost, and public opinion surrounding refugee resettlement:

  • Support for expanded evacuation: Citing America’s “moral obligation” following 20 years of war, some argue the US should evacuate and resettle all Afghan allies as well as vulnerable populations who will be persecuted under Taliban rule.
  • Prioritizing those who assisted US mission: Others contend that logistical constraints make full evacuation impossible. Efforts should focus on Afghan allies who sacrificed most to directly enable the US mission.
  • Concerns over security risks: Some security analysts caution against putting urgency of evacuation over proper vetting, warning of potential risks of allowing unvetted populations into the US.
  • Financial considerations: Large-scale resettlement involves massive costs to provide housing, language training, and social services. Some fiscal conservatives argue these resources would be better spent on veterans and Americans in need.

Debate continues over how to balance America’s duty to allies, manage public concerns, and accommodate those most in need under the threat of Taliban rule.

Push for policy clarity

Refugee advocates argue greater policy and funding clarity from Congress is needed for the Afghanistan evacuation and long-term resettlement commitment:

  • Raises the refugee admission cap to accommodate Afghan allies
  • Expedites SIV processing
  • Expands and speeds up P1/P2 visa programs
  • Provides funding for evacuation transit support
  • Funding for Afghan refugee resettlement services

Lack of proactive policies and funding commitments has forced evacuation efforts to proceed on an ad-hoc basis. Clear policies enabling evacuation and resettlement would provide greater certainty for Afghans seeking refuge.


Determining exactly how many vulnerable Afghans require evacuation in the wake of the Taliban takeover is a complex challenge. Estimates range from around 100,000 up to half a million when counting extended families.

While over 124,000 have been evacuated so far, at least that many may remain needing resettlement in the US and coalition countries. How to manage ongoing evacuation efforts amid considerable logistical obstacles remains a pressing issue.

Providing greater policy clarity and funding commitments for Afghan refugee resettlement will be key to providing these allies and vulnerable populations the refuge they need following two decades of conflict.

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