US military bases prepare to house up to 50,000 Afghans

Eight U.S. military bases are working to house an expected 50,000 Afghan refugees, U.S. Northern Command head Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck said Friday.

More than 25,600 Afghans have arrived stateside so far and include a mix of special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants and asylum-seekers, VanHerck told reporters at the Pentagon via satellite video.

But with a current ability to only house 36,000 people across installations, “we’re working to increase capacity to at least 50,000,” he said.

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He noted that it’s unlikely the military will need to use additional bases to house people.

While they wait for their visas to be processed or to be resettled, Afghans are receiving housing, food, medical care and other services at Fort Lee, Va.; Fort McCoy, Wis.; Fort Bliss, Texas; Joint Base McGuire-Dix–Lakehurst, N.J.; Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; Fort Pickett, Va.; and Camp Atterbury, Ind.

Fort McCoy houses the most people at nearly 9,000, while Camp Atterbury hosts the least at just over 60.

VanHerck said the majority of SIV applicants are being sent to Fort Lee, where they'll work through the final steps of earning their visas and clear health screenings.

The other bases have mostly received Afghans seeking asylum who require further security screening before resettlement.

Of those Afghans that have already entered the country, about 1,000 have moved off of bases for resettlement, VanHerck said. 

He did not say how long it took to process evacuees, or how long Northcom expects to house people at the bases.  VanHerck did acknowledge there have been problems as the installations struggle with language, cultural, sanitation and other issues.

To help resolve these issues, some bases are setting up “mayor cells,” led by service members and an Afghan counterpart to communicate about what everyone needs. The leaders work similarly to city mayors and are in charge of several dorms or housing units.

“We have cultural differences and those are things that we’re working on, educating both the Afghans and our people on the challenges that we face from a cultural perspective,” VanHerck said.

In addition, Northcom has asked the Pentagon for additional linguists who can speak with the Afghans.

“I’m building eight small cities. We're going to have challenges, just like you do across the nation in various locations,” VanHerck said.

All Afghans receive COVID-19 testing, both at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., as well as when they arrive on a military installation, he noted.

Once on base, families are housed together during their processing, with those traveling alone separated by sex.

The small number of unaccompanied children, meanwhile, stay at a Health and Human Services Department facility near Dulles while officials work to reunite them with their families.