The Biden administration is considering sending some of the Afghan evacuees at a US military base in Kosovo back to Afghanistan if they cannot clear the intense vetting process to come to the United States, according to three US officials familiar with the matter.
A return to Afghanistan is only one option on the table – and comes with complicated legal questions – but it is being studied as US officials have yet to develop an overall plan for how to handle the challenge of where to resettle Afghans if they do not clear the US security clearance process.
The rushed and chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan in the final weeks of August sent the US government scrambling to establish sites across Europe and the Middle East to process tens of thousands of evacuees. About 70,000 have come to the United States, others have been cleared to go to partner third countries, and those whose cases need more extensive vetting are being transferred to Camp Bondsteel in eastern Kosovo.
The number of evacuees at the base is small – roughly 200 individuals, including family members, according to a source familiar, and the administration has an agreement with the government of Kosovo to house them there for up to a year.
Many evacuees who were sent to Bondsteel to be processed have been cleared and moved on to the US, sources say; a senior administration official told CNN last week that nobody has been deemed “ultimately unsuitable for entry to the United States yet.”
However, there is concern among some US officials and lawmakers that if any evacuees are ultimately not cleared to come to the US, there are few suitable options for them, and that they could end up waiting on the US base long-term.
Meanwhile, sources familiar with the situation told CNN that there is a sense of trepidation among the Afghan community members at the base, many of whom don’t know why they have been sent there or how long they will be there and worry they will be stigmatized as “terrorists” for having been processed there.
The senior administration official said that the kind of security flags that have led people to be transferred to Bondsteel from other transit locations in Europe and the Middle East are generally not those “that can be resolved within hours or even within days.” The official noted that certain types of vetting can be more complicated and can involve getting FBI or other interviewers involved for questioning about the information the US has come across.
“That can be a more time-consuming process than … just ruling out someone based on fingerprints or facial photographs,” the official said. “That’s the kind of thing where the sort of longer process that’s happening at Bondsteel can be useful.”
National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said that “all Afghans hoping to begin new lives in America must first pass our security screening and vetting process and receive necessary vaccinations before they are permitted to enter the United States.”
“The fact that some people have been flagged by our counterterrorism, intelligence or law enforcement professionals for additional screening shows our system is working,” she continued.
State Department ‘confident’ they can be resettled
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the US government is “confident that these Afghan evacuees will be able to be resettled in the United States or in third countries as appropriate.”
The senior administration official said they are “eyes wide open that there is at least a distinct possibility that there will be some further reduced subset that will require work to relocate in a way that is secure and humane and appropriate for them.”
The US has not sent anyone back to Afghanistan, but the official said they “would leave all such possibilities on the table, which includes the fact that you might have evacuees for whom that is their preferred destination if the United States is not an option.”
That option is mired in human rights concerns and legal questions, as international law prohibits the forced return of refugees and the forced return of people who would be tortured.
There are two circumstances in which they could be legally sent back.
The first would be involuntary deportation, which is not a human rights violation if the Afghans’ claim that they have been persecuted and tortured does not hold up. The second would be if they have been fully informed of the situation – which would include an update on what the Taliban have agreed to – and consent to going back.
Human rights advocates say there are reasons to be skeptical of any commitments the Taliban make.
“There’s a huge grain of salt with any assurances that the Taliban would give,” said Bill Frelick said, a director of the refugee and migrant division of Human Rights Watch, pointing to their historical and recent track record. “I don’t know that their assurances could be believed or trusted to the point where you would actually send somebody back.”
There are also concerns that the Afghans who are not cleared could be stuck on the base long-term because no other country will take them in.
“That’s a major concern,” said Frelick.
Sources told CNN that for the Afghans at the base, there are questions and concerns about being there and what is in store for their future.
“Their worries circle around the fact that their future is uncertain and they do not know where they are going to be with their families,” Labinot Maliqi, an imam in Kosovo has made regular visits to the US military base, explained to CNN.
Another source noted that the evacuees “just want to start their lives but they don’t have any certainty.”
“Particularly for those who are waiting for their spouses to be cleared or for family members to be cleared, they just feel like they’re in limbo,” they said.