Guam hotels proposed to house Afghan evacuees

Tumon skyline. Many tourism-related businesses are still closed or in danger of shutting down. LEAP will provide direct financial assistance to small businesses that experienced extreme levels of pandemic-related interruption. (PNC file photo)

A small portion of the thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government will be flown directly to the U.S., while a larger group will be evacuated to third countries or military bases overseas where their visa paperwork will be reviewed, three administration officials told NBC News.

About 2,500 Afghans whose visa applications have cleared security vetting will be eligible for evacuation directly to a U.S. military base in the U.S., along with their family members, NBC News reported, citing a State Department spokesperson and two Defense officials.

The evacuation flights, using chartered civilian planes, are expected to begin within days, NBC News reported, citing two Defense officials and two refugee advocates briefed on the matter.

Guam officials have been pushing for the Afghan evacuees to be sent to the island.

Although there is no official word yet from Washington, The Honolulu Civil Beat is quoting Guam senator Jose “Pedo” Terlaje as saying that Guam’s long-suffering hotel industry will get a boost if island hotels are used to house Afghan refugees.

“We used to welcome 1.6 million tourists a year, and now we virtually have none. We have the capacity in thousands of empty hotel rooms, if the federal government can properly plan,” HCB quoted Terlaje as saying in an article sub-headlined “Empty hotel rooms in the Pacific island territory could serve as a way station for Afghans fleeing the Taliban, advocates say.”

The HCB article, authored by Kevin Knodell, also quoted Terlaje as stating in an email that “if we did it then, we can do it again,” referring to the fact that Guam temporarily housed South Vietnamese refugees during the ‘70s, and more recently, Kurdish refugees from Iraq.

However, Terlaje also stated: “Should Guam be called on to save these people upon the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Guam will answer that call because we understand personally the toll of war. But I am very cognizant of the fact that Guam is the option that will remain because as a territory we have no real say in the final decision.”

Terlaje is not the only Guam official expressing cautious support for the so-called “Guam option” in evacuating Afghan refugees.

Governor Lou Leon Guerrero has stated that she would support whatever decision the military makes, even if this involves the “Guam option.”

In fact, the governor’s chief advisor on military and regional affairs, Carlotta Leon Guerrero, said that although there doesn’t seem to be any official movement on the proposal at this time, they have been reaching out to the feds to find out more information in case the “Guam option” is indeed implemented.

The governor reiterated this when she was interviewed recently on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow show.

“Rachel, I have already gathered our cabinet members. I have been talking to the military. I have been talking to our National Guard and preparing for when that decision is made,” Leon Guerrero said.

Guam Congressman Michael San Nicolas has also joined the bi-partisan congressional group Keeping Our Promises Working Group, in signing a letter sent to President Biden, agreeing to evacuate Afghan allies with Guam as an option for staging.

However, San Nicolas made sure that the letter includes the stipulation that any Afghan evacuation plan that includes Guam also ensures Afghan evacuees are vaccinated and housed to protect the community from COVID-19.

Vaccinations against the virus have been lagging in Afghanistan because of delays in vaccine shipments although the pace has lately been picking up.

According to the Reuters COVID-19 tracker, Afghanistan has administered at least 1,024,168 doses of COVID vaccines so far. Assuming every person needs 2 doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated only about 1.3% of the country’s population.

During the last week reported, Afghanistan averaged about 8,921 doses administered each day. At that rate, it will take a further 853 days to administer enough doses for only another 10% of the population,” Reuters reported.

This has led a number of Guam residents to fear that unvaccinated Afghan refugees may result in a COVID-19 spike again on Guam just when the island is targeting to reach herd immunity.

Terlaje, although supportive of the Guam option, at the same time acknowledged that the global coronavirus pandemic poses problems, saying the “federal government must properly plan for COVID and social distancing of Afghan evacuees.”

Honolulu Civil Beat also quoted Hawaii Rep. Kai Kahele, a veteran who deployed to Afghanistan multiple times, as supportive of the Guam option.

“I am deeply concerned about our Afghan partners who risked their lives to assist and support the U.S. mission in the region. We must do everything we can to provide immediate assistance and ensure their personal safety,” Kahele stated.