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More than 230 Afghan refugee children are alone in the U.S. without their families

Reunions may be a long time coming. Just one evacuee flight leaves Kabul weekly, and some nations where Afghans wait while applying to come to the U.S. have stopped taking refugees.
Kabul Evacuees Continue To Arrive At Ramstein Air Base
An evacuated girl from Afghanistan takes a nap in a temporary check-in hall and waits for a plane that will take her to Dallas at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Aug. 26, 2021.Andreas Rentz / Getty Images file

More than 230 Afghan children are alone in the U.S. while their parents or caregivers remain in Afghanistan, according to new figures from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement obtained by NBC News, and as it gets harder to evacuate anyone from Afghanistan, there is little hope of speedy reunions.

Just one flight with evacuees leaves Kabul each week, and some countries where Afghans wait while applying to come to the U.S. have stopped accepting refugees.

As of Aug. 30, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, had 104 children in its care, while 130 were in the custody of state governments or non-governmental organizations. Of the 104 still in federal care, 42 are in foster care, according to ORR data. 

During the chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghans who had helped the U.S. in August 2021, many Afghan families made the hard decision to separate to get as many family members as possible to safety. More than 1,500 children came to the U.S. unaccompanied, and ORR has placed more than 1,400 with family members or other adults. 

The goal remains to reunify all Afghan children with their parents or relatives in the U.S., a spokesperson said, although many do not yet have family outside Afghanistan. 

Afghan people climb on a Kam Air plane at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 6, 2021.
Afghan people climb atop a Kam Air plane as they wait at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war.Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images file

“As soon as a child is identified as being without any trusted adult, we immediately begin working to reunite these children with their families and loved ones as quickly as possible, including by assisting Afghans who have arrived in the United States and have family members overseas come to the United States,” an ORR spokesperson said in a statement.

“These children have experienced far more trauma than any child ever should," said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "The urgency of this moment means doing whatever it takes to reunite these vulnerable children with their families. ... These children can’t afford to wait decades for the United States to keep its promise to those left behind."

A bottleneck

Since the U.S. departure from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover, the Taliban have restricted the number of flights leaving Kabul, harassed Afghans — especially women — who are trying to leave and charged exorbitant fees for charter flights. In November, the Taliban halted all evacuation flights for several months over a dispute about how Kabul Airport was being run and who was leaving on the flights.

Flights restarted in January. By this summer, an average of two charter flights were leaving with evacuees every week, but the number has since fallen again, and this month it is down to one per week.

Qatar has taken tens of thousands of refugees in the past year, but the facilities there cannot accommodate an unlimited number of people, and now Secretary of State Antony Blinken is urging Afghanistan’s neighbors to take in refugees so they have access to American consular services and can apply to come to the U.S. 

Tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans who are still inside Afghanistan have received a referral for relocation to the U.S. through the Priority-1 or Priority-2 categories of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). But they would have to get out of Afghanistan and go to a third country to have their cases processed. Even after a case has been accepted into the USRAP system it can take 12 to 18 months or longer to process.

“We recognize that it is currently extremely difficult for Afghans to obtain a visa to a third country or find a way to enter a third country, and like many refugees, may face significant challenges fleeing to safety,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We are continuing to review the situation on the ground and consider all available options, and our planning will continue to evolve. We strongly encourage Afghanistan’s neighbors to allow entry for Afghans and coordinate with humanitarian international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghans in need.”

In October, State Department officials briefed Congress that the Defense Department was compiling a list of Afghans who were prioritized for relocation from Afghanistan. They said the list would include former special operators, women in security forces, pilots, elite troops and Afghans who have knowledge about specific military and intelligence operations. They could be in danger because of their work for the U.S. and NATO forces, and they also knew things that could pose risks to the U.S. if extracted by captors.

Now, nearly one year later, the Pentagon has created the list, according to two U.S. defense officials; neither was aware of any official government efforts to prioritize evacuation efforts for such Afghans.

Asked about the list, a spokesperson for the Pentagon said: “The Department of Defense continues to support State Department-led efforts to facilitate the relocation of former members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) by receiving and processing Priority 1 (P-1) referrals submitted by U.S. service members, retirees, DoD civilians, and other affiliates of the DoD community.

“Leaders from across the Department have long echoed the solemn and enduring obligation we maintain to those Afghan brothers and sisters beside whom we served & sacrificed,” Army Maj. Rob Lodewick said. “For many in DoD, this obligation goes beyond policy, and remains deeply personal — manifesting itself into not just words, but deeds. To date, such deeds have led to nearly 94,000 Afghans arriving safely in the United States as part of Operation Allies Welcome and we will continue to do all we can to support ongoing interagency relocation efforts.”