DHS hamstrung by lack of volunteers for Afghan evacuation effort: watchdog

A lack of volunteers from within the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) hamstrung its effectiveness in managing a surge of Afghan evacuees brought to the U.S. and other countries in the wake of the U.S. evacuation, according to a government watchdog. 

While DHS was not a part of the on-the-ground evacuation in Afghanistan, it’s been the lead agency of operation Allies Welcome, tasked with running background checks of evacuees transported to nearby countries and then coordinating with refugee and social service agencies once they arrived at U.S. military bases.

But despite an initial overwhelming interest in aiding with that effort, a slow response time from DHS combined with a lack of funding left the agency reaching only about a third of its goal for volunteer recruitment.

“DHS advertised these detail opportunities to its employees but did not direct components to commit all necessary staff and did not initially receive funding. Therefore, DHS did not fill all the positions,” the report noted.

“DHS could not reimburse components for the costs of travel and overtime, making some components reluctant to fund the volunteer deployments and further limiting the number of DHS employees at safe havens.”

DHS first reached out to employees about the opportunity to volunteer with the Afghanistan effort on Aug. 20, just days after the fall of Kabul when the chaos of the U.S. exit was becoming increasingly apparent. More than 1,500 employees registered with DHS’s volunteer force to be a part of the effort.

But DHS waited almost two months to contact prospective volunteers, in some cases asking them to leave with just 48 to 72 hours notice.

In the end DHS never had more than 67 volunteers working at the so-called safe havens, supplying just 3 percent of the staff at the military bases housing Afghan evacuees.

“Partners such as [the Department of Defense], which supplied nearly 87 percent of staff, assumed the majority of responsibility for providing staff at safe havens,” the report noted.

Volunteers stressed that the funding issues were a major problem.

“Safe haven leaders and [U.S. government] staff shared their belief that components did not want to pay for employee details and speculated their reluctance was exacerbated by the nearness to the end of the fiscal year and because they were operating under a continuing resolution,” the report said.