Secrecy shrouds Afghan refugees sent by US to base in Kosovo

Washington, Oct 23 (AP):
The US 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, the reasons for holding them back and the question of what might become of any who can’t be cleared to come to the US.
We are obviously concerned, said Jelena Sesar, a researcher for Amnesty International who specialises 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 have since criticised the administration for allowing insufficiently vetted Afghans into the country. 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 US support in 2008, fluctuates as new people arrive and others leave when security issues, such as missing documents, are resolved, according to US officials.
The government of Kosovo, a close US 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.

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