Despite urges from officials to stay put and finish out the resettlement process, hundreds of Afghan refugees are opting to leave the US military bases where they are being hosted.
According to the Reuters exclusive, the number of "independent departures," is estimated to be around 700 people, but could be higher. This data has not been previously reported.
The decision made by these refugees is raising alarms with immigration advocates, who are concerned that these refugees are leaving behind an extensive but voluntary resettlement process.
A US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson told Reuters that those who left the bases before resettlement "generally" had ties to the US, like family members, and had the resources to support themselves.
"The spokesperson said that in addition, at the outset of the operation many of those evacuated were U.S. citizens, permanent residents or had approved Special Immigrant Visas so were able to depart quickly," wrote Reuters.
Nearly 53,000 Afghan refugees were brought into the US after a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the refugees being housed in eight locations across the country. Immigration experts say that the US has no legal authority holding these Afghans against their will.
One US Citizenship and Immigration Services official, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told Reuters that leaving early could cost the refugees critical benefits and create legal issues in the future.
"It's a giant can of worms," they said. "This could lead to years and years of terrible immigration status problems."
Despite concerns about these refugees leaving the bases and heading into the public, US officials stress that all those leaving had previously undergone extensive security screenings before they entered into the US. General Glen VanHerck, head of Northern Command, told reporters on Thursday that incidents involving robbery and theft were substantially lower than in the general US population.
Concerns were raised regarding the refugees due to reports of sexual assault of minors and female service members at bases where the refugees are housed.
In September, a group of male Afghan refugees allegedly assaulted a female US service member while temporarily housed at the Dona Ana army complex in New Mexico.
The same month, two Afghan refugees were issued federal charges in connection to the sexual assault cases. Bahrullah Noori, 20, was charged with attempting to engage in a sexual act with a minor under 16 through the use of force. Mohammad Haroon Imaad, 32, was charged with assaulting his spouse by strangling and suffocating her.
"The risk of the independent departures is to the Afghans themselves," wrote Reuters.
In a document titled "Departee Information," officials warn refugees that leaving the base means the forfeiture of services like immigrations paperwork processing, and cash to assist with traveling to their final destination.
"Once you leave this base, you forfeit these advantages and may not return," it reads.
Immigration lawyer Margaret Stock said the officials' warning was not meant to be ill-intentioned.
"I think they're trying to look out for people," she said. "The people managing the bases are rightfully concerned that somebody might not be fully aware of the consequences of wandering off."