Secrecy persists over small group of Afghan refugees sent to overseas base in Kosovo

The United States welcomes tens of thousands of Afghans airlifted out of Kabul, but has made little public disclosure of a small group that remains abroad: dozens that have triggered potential security concerns during security checks and were sent to an American base in the Balkan nation of Kosovo.

Human rights defenders have raised concerns about Afghans being diverted to the Bondsteel camp in Kosovo over the past six weeks, citing a lack of transparency about their status, the reasons for detaining them and the question of what might become of those who cannot be allowed to come to the United States.

“We are obviously worried,” said Jelena Sesar, researcher at Amnesty International specializing in the Balkans. “What is really going on with these people, especially those who don’t go through security? Are they going to be detained? Will they have access to legal assistance? And what’s the plan for them? Is there a risk that they will eventually be returned to Afghanistan? “

The Biden administration says it’s too early to answer some of these questions, at least publicly, as it works feverishly to resettle Afghans who were evacuated after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August.

The lack of public information has made it a challenge for those who closely follow the plight of refugees.

“There isn’t a lot of transparency in how the security screening regime works,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project. “We don’t know why people are being sent to Kosovo for additional screening, what this additional screening is, how long it will take.

So far, more than 66,000 Afghans have arrived in the United States since August 17, undergoing what the government describes as a rigorous security screening process to eliminate threats to national security among a population that includes people. who also worked as interpreters for the US military. like the armed forces of their own country.

Of these, approximately 55,000 are on US military bases across the country, where they complete immigration processing, medical assessments 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 comes under scrutiny following waves of criticism from President Joe Biden for the rampant evacuation of US forces and their allies as part of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has been put in action when President Donald Trump’s administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban to end America’s longest war.

Trump and other Republicans have since criticized the administration for allowing insufficiently controlled Afghans into the country. Home Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the screening and said there had 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 support from the United States in 2008, fluctuates as new people arrive and as more people arrive. others leave when security concerns, such as missing documents, are resolved, according to US officials. .

The government of Kosovo, a close ally of the United States, has agreed to let the refugees stay on its territory for a year. The country also hosts a separate group at a site adjacent to Bondsteel known as Camp Bechtel, where Afghans who worked for NATO countries during the war remain temporarily until they are resettled in Europe. .

For several weeks, there were around 30 Afghan evacuees, along with around 170 family members, at Camp Bondsteel because of the red flags, according to a US official, who requested anonymity to discuss undisclosed information. .

They are in a sort of limbo because they are not detained but they are not necessarily free to leave at this point either.

They volunteered to be evacuated from Afghanistan but were reported to one of the transit points in Europe or the Middle East and told they had to go to Kosovo.

Some have chosen to take their families with them as authorities work with analysts and other experts from the FBI, DHS and other agencies to resolve questions about their identity or past associations, a senior official said. administration.

They are free to move around the base but cannot leave under conditions set by the Kosovo government, the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security and diplomatic issues.

Those sent to Bondsteel are people who require “further consideration”, involving analysis and interviews, before authorities feel comfortable allowing them to relocate to the United States, the senior official said. administration.

In some cases the analysis has determined that they are “suitable for subsequent travel to the United States”, while in others the “work remains in progress” and their cases remain unresolved, a declared the senior official of the administration, without giving details. distribution over the numbers concerned.

The United States has not returned anyone to Afghanistan and will decide the fate of anyone who cannot pass the screening process on an “individual” basis, which in some cases could mean resettlement to another country, said this manager.

Until then, however, Bondsteel remains barred from foreigners, including lawyers who could potentially represent people there if they are ultimately not allowed to enter the United States, a situation that does not suit lawyers like Sesar. “There is no real access to the camp,” she said. “There is no public or independent review of what is going on there.”

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