Afghan refugees land at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia on August 31, 2021.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters
WASHINGTON – More than 23,000 Afghan refugees classified as “at risk” have arrived in the United States, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday, a number that represents more than a sixth of all evacuees in the past two were flown out of Kabul for months.
Price told reporters that 4,446 American citizens and 2,785 legal permanent residents also arrived in the country as part of the airlift. The total number of people who entered the United States after leaving Afghanistan by August 31 is 31,107.
Price said those numbers would likely rise as more people, both Afghans and Americans, go through customs.
The vast majority of Afghan refugees are housed at seven military bases across the country, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley told reporters during a Pentagon briefing Wednesday.
About 20,000 other evacuees are currently at seven stations in the military’s command region, which includes the Middle East, with another 23,000 at seven stations in Europe, he said.
The new numbers give a taste of the massive humanitarian and immigration efforts needed in the coming days and weeks as the international community seeks permanent refuge for families imminently threatened by the new Afghan Taliban government.
They also serve as a counter-argument for critics of President Joe Biden who say the White House has not done enough to help vulnerable Afghans.
The US military alone is preparing the accommodation and handling of a total of 50,000 evacuees, many of whom served alongside the American armed forces during the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
“Some of these brave Afghans will come to build new lives with their families in America,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday.
All potential immigrants to the United States will undergo “careful screening and security clearance,” he added.
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Afghan nationals arriving in the United States are temporarily housed at Fort Lee, Fort Pickett, and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, Fort Bliss, Texas, and Holloman Air Force Base New Mexico.
The military bases are not a “place where people would live,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday. “This is a place that people would go, get medical care and help, and connect with refugee resettlement organizations that play an important role in bringing refugees into our country from around the world.”
Psaki said the United States is also working with third countries to determine their capacity and readiness to receive refugees from Afghanistan.
Canada has already announced that it will take in 20,000 Afghan refugees. Australia has offered to grant asylum to around 3,000. And the UK says it will host up to 5,000 refugees in the coming year, with a long-term goal of 20,000.
Just 48 hours after the US formally withdrew its last soldier from Afghanistan, there are still many unanswered questions about the next steps for evacuees.
Many of them left their homes with only clothes and travel documents. Some of the evacuees have no records at all.
What started as a giant military airlift has grown into a massive immigration screening project.
The lead agency for the relocation efforts will be the Department of Homeland Security, which has already started to set up an inter-agency Unified Coordination Group.
The State Department is also expected to play an important role in the initial phase of resettlement, which will include handling thousands of “special immigrant visas” issued to Afghans who worked for the United States.