Why We Need To Help Afghans With Ties To The U.S.

Michael Posner

By Michael Posner

By Michael Posner

As tens of thousands of Afghans struggle to flee Taliban persecution, footage of desperate people grabbing onto the sides of a C-17 military transport plane have evoked painful comparisons to Vietnam in 1975 and the haunting images of people clinging to U.S. helicopters lifting off from the Saigon embassy. In the immediate aftermath, the U.S. evacuated 138,000 Vietnamese refugees. Most were taken by Navy ships to Guam for processing and then to military bases in the U.S. Almost all were resettled over the next few months, with refugees starting new lives in all 50 U.S. states.

In Afghanistan, the collapse of the former civilian government and return to power of the Taliban, have forced the U.S. to confront its most consequential demand for humanitarian assistance since the fall of Saigon. Recognizing that there are immense challenges in getting people out of Afghanistan safely, the Biden Administration needs to draw on lessons learned from the experience in Southeast Asia as it charts a way forward.

The U.S. humanitarian response to those fleeing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia was remarkably generous. It began with the creation by the Ford Administration of an Indochinese Refugee Task Force, which prompted Congress to adopt the most significant U.S. law ever relating to refugees: the Refugee Act of 1980. As a refugee-rights advocate with Human Rights First (then called the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) I worked to support the inclusion of a provision that allowed, for the first time, refugees to apply for asylum after entering the United States. What was most striking to me then was the overwhelming bipartisan support for this landmark legislation. Rooted in a recognition of the world’s failure to provide a safe haven to Jewish and other refugees during World War II, the Refugee Act represented a commitment to help people left vulnerable and without a safe place to live in the wake of conflict and upheaval. It also reflected a belief that the U.S. has a special responsibility to help those who supported it during the Vietnam War. Under the Refugee Act, the U.S. eventually accepted more than 1.2 million refugees from Southeast Asia, including more than 800,000 people from Vietnam.

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Michael Posner is a Professor of Business and Society and Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.