US’ plan to open new receiving centre for Afghan evacuees sparks controversy

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The local sheriff in Northern Virginia has raised concerns about the United States government’s plan to open a new centre to receive additional Afghan evacuees.

Sheriff Michael Chapman raised concerns about a “lack of communication, lack of planning, language barriers” as well as “the NCC’s unfenced proximity to a residential neighbourhood and two public schools”, according to the statement.

The centre is due to open as the government closes down the last of eight sites on military bases that housed tens of thousands of people evacuated from Afghanistan since August last year, according to four sources familiar with the matter.

It would be staffed by multiple US agencies involved with the resettlement effort and could be operational by late February or early March, a senior US official told Reuters.

The site being considered is in Leesburg, Virginia, according to two of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The US Department of Homeland Security said in a statement to Reuters that it was still working to confirm the location of the centre.

The sheriff’s office of Loudoun County, where Leesburg is located, issued a statement on Thursday (Feb 17) saying it was told by the department that the government planned to bus some 2,000 Afghan evacuees a month, mostly relocating from Qatar, from nearby Dulles International Airport to the National Conference Centre (NCC) beginning this month.

Sheriff Michael Chapman raised concerns about a “lack of communication, lack of planning, language barriers” as well as “the NCC’s unfenced proximity to a residential neighbourhood and two public schools”, according to the statement.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the sheriff’s concerns. Mr Chapman said he had spoken to Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on the matter.

The remaining Afghans currently housed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey – the last of the eight sites on military bases – are expected to be resettled in communities around the country in the coming days.

The move away from placing refugees in repurposed military installations marks a major milestone in US President Joe Biden’s evacuation operation launched as the Taliban overran Afghanistan in August.

About 1,200 Afghans were still at the base, commonly known as Fort Dix, as of Tuesday, the Homeland Security department said. It told Reuters that the base will continue housing evacuees awaiting resettlement until the new processing centre is set up.

About 80,000 Afghans have been resettled in the US as part of “Operation Allies Welcome” in the largest effort of its kind since the Vietnam War era.

The population passing through bases included applicants to the Special Immigrant Visa programme, which is available to Afghans at risk of Taliban retaliation who worked for the US government.

Others were admitted to the US temporarily via “humanitarian parole” with the option to apply for asylum.

The Joe Biden administration has urged Congress to create a more direct pathway to citizenship for Afghans.

Thousands of vulnerable Afghans are still stranded abroad as the US government evaluates their cases and wrestles with logistical challenges to processing their admission.

Eligible Afghans currently in third countries could be allowed entry through an expedited refugee admission process, Reuters reported earlier this month.

But for Afghans still inside Afghanistan, the pathways are limited. As of data from mid-February, the US government had only approved around 170 applications out of 43,000 Afghans who have applied for “humanitarian parole” to come to the US. (Source: The Straits Times)

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