Security concerns leave Afghan evacuees stranded in a Balkan camp
WASHINGTON — For some Afghans who were evacuated as their country fell to the Taliban last summer, the journey to the United States stopped, and perhaps ended, in a cluster of tents and solar-heated temporary accommodation on a US base in the Balkans.
While more than 78,000 Afghans have arrived in the United States for resettlement since August, the future of those flagged for additional security screening and diverted to Camp Bondsteel in the tiny nation of Kosovo remains uncertain. The United States will not force the dozens of people present to return to Afghanistan, where they could face retaliation.
Their frustration grows. Some Afghans on the base, which has been shrouded in secrecy, took the unusual step this week to stage a protest, holding up signs with messages such as ‘we want justice’, according to photos sent to The Associated Press .
“They keep saying the same things, that it takes time and we have to be patient,” one of the Afghans, Muhammad Arif Sarwari, said in a text message from the base.
Their complaints provide a window into an aspect of the evacuation and resettlement of Afghans that has received little attention because US authorities and the Kosovo government have been reluctant to say much about the people sent to Bondsteel.
The base houses a mix of adults and children, as some of the people who have so far failed to obtain a visa to the United States are traveling with their families. Sarwari, a former senior Afghan government intelligence official, said there were around 45 people there, representing around 20 individual visa cases, after a flight to the US departed with 27 of the refugees Wednesday.
The Biden administration won’t provide details, but acknowledges that some of those evacuated have not passed what it calls a “rigorous multi-level screening and vetting process” and will not be allowed to enter the United States. United.
“While the vast majority of Afghan evacuees were evacuated through this process, the small number of individuals who were turned away are examples of the system working exactly as it should,” the National Security Council said in a statement. writing.
A total of about 600 Afghans have passed through Bondsteel, according to the Kosovo government, which initially allowed the base to be used for evacuees for a year but recently agreed to extend that until August 2023.
Kosovo, which gained independence from Serbia in 2008 with US support, also provided little information about Afghans to Bondsteel, citing refugee privacy. Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in a statement that the government was proud of its role in providing them with temporary shelter.
The Afghans are housed in a section of Bondsteel called Camp Liya, named after an Afghan child handed over to US Marines over a fence at Hamid Karzai International Airport during evacuation, according to a US military publication.
It was the chaotic nature of this evacuation that led to the need for overseas settlement in the first place. When the Afghan government collapsed, thousands of people boarded military transport planes with minimal screening before arriving at one of the many overseas transit points.
People sent to Bondsteel have been detained and turned away for a myriad of reasons, including missing or faulty documentation or security issues that surfaced during overseas vetting by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, officials said. responsible.
At the same time, some members of Congress have criticized the administration for what they say is inadequate screening of Afghan refugees.
Sarwari arrived in Kuwait from Afghanistan in early September with his wife and two of his daughters and says he does not know why he was held up. He was a prominent figure in Afghanistan, having served as the former director of intelligence after the US invasion in 2001. Prior to that, he was a senior figure in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
These two positions would make him a target of the Taliban if he returned.
“The verification team keeps telling us sorry, Washington is just deciding some policy issues,” he said.
Sarwari applied for a special immigrant visa, which is issued to people who worked for the US government or its allies during the war. He has not received a response, according to his lawyer, Julie Sirrs.
“In theory he’s free to go but it’s unclear where he could go,” Sirrs said. “He obviously cannot go back to Afghanistan. He is clearly in danger if he returns.
He and others live a circumscribed existence on Bondsteel. Although technically not detained, they cannot leave the arid, rocky base and have spent months in tents, adorned with handwritten signs during this week’s protest. One said “unfair decision”, while another said “children are suffering”.
The Biden administration says authorities have determined that some — it won’t say how many — simply cannot be allowed into the United States. She strives to find other countries that do not harbor the same security concerns and are willing to accept them for resettlement. . No one will be forcibly returned to Afghanistan, according to the NSC statement.
Associated Press writer Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed to this report.