Secrecy Shrouds Afghan Refugees at Base10/23 10:20
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. is welcoming tens of thousands of Afghans
airlifted out of Kabul but has disclosed little publicly about a small group
who remain overseas: dozens who triggered potential security issues during
security vetting and have been sent to an American base in the Balkan nation of
Human rights advocates have raised concerns about the Afghans diverted to
Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo over the past six weeks, citing a lack of transparency
about their status and the reasons for holding them back. It's unclear what
might become of any who cannot be cleared to come to the United States.
"We are obviously concerned," said Jelena Sesar, a researcher for Amnesty
International who specializes in the Balkans. "What really happens with these
people, especially the people who don't pass security vetting? Are they going
to be detained? Are they going to have any access to legal assistance? And what
is the plan for them? Is there any risk of them ultimately being returned to
The Biden administration says it's too soon to answer some of these
questions, at least publicly, as it works feverishly to resettle the Afghans
who were evacuated following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August.
The lack of public information has made it a challenge for those who closely
track the fate of refugees. "There's not a lot of transparency in terms of how
the security check regime works," said Sunil Varghese, policy director for the
International Refugee Assistance Project. "We don't know why people are being
sent to Kosovo for additional screening, what that additional screening is, how
long it will take."
So far, more than 66,000 Afghans have arrived in the U.S since Aug. 17,
undergoing what the government portrays as a rigorous security vetting process
to screen out national security threats from among a population that includes
people who worked as interpreters for the American military as well as their
own country's armed forces.
Of those, about 55,000 are at U.S. military bases around the country, where
they complete immigration processing and medical evaluations and quarantine
before settling in the United States. There are still 5,000 people from the
evacuation at transit points in the Middle East and Europe, according to the
Department of Homeland Security, which is managing the effort known as
Operation Allies Welcome.
The resettlement effort is under intense scrutiny following waves of
criticism of President Joe Biden for the frantic evacuation U.S. forces and
allies as part of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was put in motion when
President Donald Trump's administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban to
end America's longest war.
Trump and other Republicans claim the Biden administration has allowed
Afghan refugees into the United States without sufficient background checks.
Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has defended the screening and said there
have been only minimal threats detected among the arriving refugees.
The exact number at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, a small nation in southeastern
Europe that gained independence from Serbia with U.S. support in 2008,
fluctuates as new people arrive and others leave when security issues, such as
missing documents, are resolved, according to U.S. officials.
The government of Kosovo, a close U.S. ally, has agreed to let the refugees
stay in its territory for a year. The country also hosts a separate group at
site adjacent to Bondsteel known as Camp Bechtel, where Afghans who worked for
NATO nations during the war are staying temporarily until they are resettled in
For several weeks, there were about 30 Afghan evacuees, along with
approximately 170 family members, at Camp Bondsteel because of red flags,
according to one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss
information not publicly released.
They are in a kind of limbo because they aren't detained but they aren't
necessarily free to leave either at this point.
They volunteered to be evacuated from Afghanistan but were flagged at one of
the transit points in Europe or the Middle East and told they had to go to
Kosovo. Some chose to bring their families with them while authorities work
with analysts and other experts from the FBI, DHS and other agencies to resolve
questions about their identity or past associations, said a senior
They are free to move about the the base but can't leave under conditions
set by the government of Kosovo, said the senior official, speaking on
condition of anonymity to discuss security and diplomatic issues.
Those sent to Bondsteel are people who require "significant further
consideration," involving analysis and interviews, before authorities feel
comfortable allowing them to move on to the U.S., the senior administration
In some cases, the analysis has led to a determination that they are
"suitable for onward travel to the United States," while in others the "work
remains ongoing" and their cases remain unresolved, said the senior
administration official, without giving a precise breakdown on the numbers
The U.S. has not sent anyone back to Afghanistan and will decide the fate of
anyone who can't make it through the vetting process on an "individualized"
basis, which in some cases might mean resettling them in another country, this
In the meantime, though, Bondsteel remains off-limits to outsiders,
including lawyers who might potentially represent people there if they aren't
ultimately allowed to enter the U.S., a situation that doesn't sit right with
advocates like Sesar. "There is not real access to the camp," she said.
"There's no public or independent scrutiny of what happens in there."
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