With U.S. officials seeing “many incidents” of older Afghan men fleeing the country with apparently underage wives, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now looking into ways to spot potential cases of human trafficking among the refugees, according to an internal government document obtained by Yahoo News.
Reports of “child brides” among Afghan refugees were first reported last week by AP and other news outlets, including cases of girls saying they had been raped or sexually abused by older men. State Department officials were seeking “urgent guidance” from other government agencies on how to deal with the issue, AP reported.
It now appears that those other agencies, particularly CBP, are investigating those reports.
“U.S. officials at intake centers in the United Arab Emirates and in Wisconsin have found many incidents in which Afghan girls have been presented to authorities as the wives of much older men,” says a Sept. 5 report by the Office of Intelligence and Analysis in CBP’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security.
The report goes on to note that “forced or coerced ‘marriages’ are indicative of the level of desperation Afghan families are willing to consider helping loved ones escape the Taliban and qualify for evacuation to Western countries,” and says the agency would be monitoring for ways to help other agencies spot such potential cases.
The report, marked for official use only, was obtained exclusively by Yahoo News.
A U.S. government official familiar with the reports of alleged child brides said the problem is a result of poor vetting of Afghans.
“The concern is, we’re seeing a lot of family units with very young girls. These girls are brought into the U.S. as wives,” the official said. "It's not a small number.”
The chaotic evacuation of Afghans who worked for U.S. or coalition forces, along with others considered at risk of retaliation by the Taliban, has become the source of significant criticism for President Biden and his administration. Along with facing blowback over images of Afghans falling to their deaths from a U.S. military aircraft packed with fleeing refugees, the administration recently acknowledged that the majority of those eligible for Special Immigrant Visas have not yet made it out of the country.
The reports of child brides, which CBP believes could be the result of desperate families trying to find ways to get their children out of the country, appears to be one symptom of the chaotic evacuation.
“This highlights just one reason why an orderly evacuation initiated months prior would have been far superior,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the major nonprofit resettlement agencies helping Afghan refugees in the U.S., told Yahoo News. “It also speaks to the need to prioritize trafficking screening at intake. We must ensure that any victim of trafficking be identified and cared for in compliance with the law and their best interests.”
CBP did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security defended the evacuation process.
“As part of our collaborative interagency effort, the federal government has established a robust and multi-layered screening and vetting process with dual goals of protecting the homeland and providing protections for vulnerable Afghans,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
“We take allegations of forced marriage seriously,” the spokesperson continued. “We are coordinating across the U.S. government and with domestic and international partners to detect potential cases of forced marriage or other forms of abuse, including human trafficking, among vulnerable Afghans at relocation sites and to protect any victims identified.”
A White House spokesperson declined to address the allegations of sexual abuse and trafficking but defended the vetting process for Afghan refugees. “Intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals are conducting screening and security vetting for all SIV applicants and other vulnerable Afghans,” the spokesperson wrote. “This includes reviews of both biographic and biometric data before they are admitted into the United States.”
It’s unclear precisely how many alleged cases of sexual abuse or human trafficking have been reported, and the White House and DHS both declined to address specific incidents.
“The reality is, overseas the vetting process sucks — there’s minimal vetting,” said the official familiar with the reports. “So now we have a 60-year-old guy with a 12-year-old girl saying, ‘That’s my wife.’”
In Afghanistan, the legal age for women to marry under the previous Western-backed government was 16, though marriages for girls under that limit were a frequent occurrence, particularly in rural areas.
“So what do we do? Are these legitimate marriages? In our eyes, no,” said the official familiar with the reports. “Is there nefarious intent? Are these girls being rescued, or are they brought here for more nefarious purposes? We are just not sure. These are the concerns.”
Caitlin Dickson contributed reporting.
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