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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 
Kosovo.

   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 
Afghanistan?"

   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 
Europe.

   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 
administration official.

   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 
official said.

   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 
involved.

   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 
official said.

   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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