Richmond Times-Dispatch: Afghan evacuation operation ‘drawing down’ near Dulles, but thousands still waiting to enter U.S.

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

A 24-hour-a-day processing center for welcoming Afghan refugees to Northern Virginia is “drawing down” its operation, with flights into Washington Dulles International Airport paused into next week because of at least 10 measles cases among children evacuated to military bases in Virginia and other parts of the country.

But the U.S. government’s plans aren’t clear for more than 12,000 Afghan refugees waiting in other countries for transport to a new home here after fleeing from the return of Taliban rule over Afghanistan.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, wants to know the government’s timetable for ending Operation Allies Welcome at Fort Pickett and seven other U.S. military bases that were housing 53,000 Afghans earlier this week, as well as its plans for ensuring adequate medical care for refugees to avoid overwhelming surrounding communities.

“While Operation Allies Welcome should and must continue, it is important to recognize the context in which each site exists and the impact on nearby communities,” said Spanberger, whose district includes Fort Pickett and surrounding Nottoway County, in a letter on Thursday to the Federal Emergency Management Agency official coordinating the effort with the Department of Homeland Security.

Fort Pickett, home to the Virginia National Guard, was housing 5,900 refugees this week. The emergency mission also was housing 3,700 refugees at the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico and 1,700 at Fort Lee near Petersburg, which already had handled 2,000 Afghans under a special immigrant visa program for allies of the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan who began arriving at the end of July.

Since the mass evacuation began on Aug. 15, as the Taliban overran the Afghanistan capital in Kabul, more than 64,000 Afghans and returning Americans have evacuated to the U.S., primarily to Dulles in Chantilly, as well as more recently to Philadelphia International Airport.

None flew directly from Afghanistan, but instead arrived from so-called “lily pad” countries — Germany, Qatar, Spain, Italy, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

American citizens and lawful permanent residents arriving at Dulles have returned to their homes after checking into a state-run repatriation center in an airport hotel, but Afghans have relied on a temporary processing site at Dulles Expo Center, south of the airport.

The center, operated by more than 200 staff of the U.S. State Department and the Agency for International Development, has provided food, clothing, medical attention and other basics of care. They have also given vaccinations against childhood diseases, including measles, that are rare in the U.S. but still rampant in Afghanistan, as well as tested for COVID-19 and offered vaccinations against the coronavirus disease.

A spokesperson for Homeland Security, who asked not to be identified, said last week that the Dulles Expo Center “has begun drawing down its operational support of [Operation Allies Welcome] commensurate with mission requirements.”

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The drawdown at Dulles Expo Center has coincided with the pause in refugee flights a week ago because of diagnosed cases of measles among Afghan children who have arrived in the U.S.

The Virginia Department of Health has confirmed nine cases of measles with no sign of community transmission in Virginia, where more than 90% of the population is vaccinated against the virus. The Associated Press reported one confirmed case in Wisconsin, where refugees are housed at Fort McCoy.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had asked for an additional seven-day delay in resuming flights to allow state and local public health workers to trace potential exposures to the disease. Fairfax health officials listed potential exposure at Dulles, the Expo Center, a local hotel and three hospitals.

Outside medical care has been a concern in Northern Virginia, where regional officials have faulted the lack of federal coordination among hospitals or a plan for transporting refugees back to the Expo Center from hospitals after treatment. They said U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials had insisted that all evacuees who hadn’t cleared customs be sent to one hospital instead of distributing them among many.

The Northern Virginia Emergency Response System, an alliance of 16 hospitals and local governments in the region, quickly took over the role of coordinating those services so that hospitals in the region were not overwhelmed at the expense of other patients.

The Homeland Security spokesperson acknowledged this week that “there were initial medical and transportation planning challenges in Northern Virginia.”

The federal agencies involved in Operation Allies Welcome “have prioritized engagement with impacted local hospitals, state officials, and national public health organizations to avoid a similar situation and ensure smooth operations moving forward,” the spokesperson said.

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Spanberger wants similar assurances for the mostly rural area around Fort Pickett, which is housing more Afghan refugees than there are residents in the neighboring town of Blackstone.

“As the mission rapidly evolves, I want to ensure that ample attention is paid to the medical capacity in the areas adjacent to Fort Pickett,” she said in a letter to Robert Fenton, senior response official at FEMA for the Unified Coordination Group. “Health care services in Nottoway County and neighboring counties are very limited — and they are already strained by an increase in COVID-19 cases.”

Spanberger copied the letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whom she had questioned about the mission timetable in his appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the beginning of the week.

Blinken promised to resettle refugees “as expeditiously as possible,” but said he couldn’t give a firm timeline for ending the operation “because we also have to do it mindful of making sure we complete any security checks that are necessary.”

Spanberger toured the operation at Pickett more than a week ago.

“I am deeply appreciative of the mission and was moved by all the Afghan children, women and men I saw during my visit,” she said in her letter to Fenton. “I am also aware of the many demands on Fort Pickett and the need to have a plan for drawing down Operation Allies Welcome on site.”

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