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Focus shifts from Dulles as Afghan refugee flights prepare to resume
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Focus shifts from Dulles as Afghan refugee flights prepare to resume

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A flight carrying Afghan nationals landed in Dulles International Airport in Virginia, as efforts to get willing people out of Afghanistan pick up speed.

Air flights will resume next week for thousands of Afghan refugees, but they’re not likely to land at Washington Dulles International Airport.

Dulles had been the sole entry point for Afghans seeking refuge in the United States for more than two weeks before Afghanistan fell under control of the Taliban in mid-August. The airport remained the hub for a massive evacuation of Americans and Afghans from Kabul until U.S. military forces withdrew at the end of August.

But now the focus of the refugee settlement process has shifted north to Philadelphia International Airport, which began receiving some flights last month before they were suspended because of a measles outbreak among Afghan children arriving here.

“Philadelphia International Airport will be the main hub of arrival from ‘lily pad’ locations overseas,” a U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson confirmed Friday.

The so-called lily pad sites are transit points in Bahrain, Germany, Kuwait, Italy, Qatar, Spain and the United Arab Emirates, where refugees are screened for security before traveling to the U.S.

More than 53,000 Afghans have arrived in the U.S., primarily through Dulles and an initial processing site at nearby Dulles Expo Center in Fairfax County. They are housed temporarily at eight U.S. military bases, including Fort Lee near Petersburg, Fort Pickett near Blackstone in Nottoway County, and the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico in Northern Virginia.

Currently, about 5,400 refugees are living at Fort Pickett, 3,100 at Quantico and 800 at Fort Lee, which was the initial site to receive Afghan military allies and their families under a special immigrant visa program that Congress and President Joe Biden funded at the end of July.

The first flight arrived at Dulles on July 30 with 206 adults and 15 infants.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of the U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Northern Aerospace Defense Command, said Thursday that more 2,600 Afghans had been resettled in communities here under the special immigrant visa and other refugee programs.

VanHerck said that more than 4,000 Afghans had completed processing at the military bases and were ready for resettlement in communities.

The eight bases have a combined capacity for 64,000 refugees, but more than 14,000 Afghans are waiting at overseas locations for transport to the U.S.

“We’re relying on output [of refugees moving from bases to new homes] to ensure we have capacity for the additional Afghans coming our way,” VanHerck said at a Department of Defense briefing.

Flights have been suspended for more than three weeks because of an outbreak of 24 measles cases, including at least a half-dozen in Virginia, with 12 cases still active.

VanHerck said he expects flights to resume next week with the end of a 21-day quarantine period, with 100% of Afghans vaccinated against the highly infectious childhood virus.

He said 84% of Afghan refugees had been vaccinated against COVID-19 and all had been tested for the coronavirus, with a positivity rate of 0.4%. The COVID-19 vaccine is now mandatory protocol for all Afghan refugees arriving in the U.S. for resettlement, he said.

Vaccinations are one factor in determining how long Afghan refugees will stay at military bases, such as the three participating in Virginia, the Homeland Security spokesperson said.

“Travel availability to their final destination and the absorptive capacity of our resettlement agency partners and local communities may also affect the amount of time people will spend on the base,” the spokesperson said. “We are actively working with resettlement agencies to ensure Afghans can reach their new communities as soon as possible.”

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