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Colombia Plans To Temporarily Host 4,000 Afghans Before They Go To The U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tens of thousands of Afghans are leaving their country, maybe forever, with no idea where they're going. One former interpreter for the U.S. military told NPR that he didn't find out he was headed to Italy until 30 minutes before the plane landed there. According to the State Department, the U.S. has brokered deals with two dozen countries to take in Afghans temporarily while the U.S. processes their visas. Colombia is one of those countries, and we are joined now by Colombia's ambassador to the U.S., Juan Carlos Pinzon. Good to have you here.

JUAN CARLOS PINZON: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here with you.

SHAPIRO: Colombia has agreed to take in 4,000 Afghans. Have they begun to arrive yet?

PINZON: Not yet. Actually, we're in the middle of a conversation with the State Department on how to organize the logistics and, you know, all the process. Then, of course, we're happy to host them in Colombia for a moment while they get their visas to come to the United States.

SHAPIRO: You say host them for a moment. Do you know how long that moment will be?

PINZON: We don't know. I think that's the - part of the conversation right now. We're getting to all the criterias (ph) and details.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of facilities are you arranging for them to stay in in Colombia? Are these individual family homes or group housing? What is the situation?

PINZON: At the beginning, what is being discussed is hotels, you know, and, you know, recreational centers in which you have accommodations for families and so on. Those are kind of places that are under discussion.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. says it will finance the cost of this. What kind of support is being provided?

PINZON: I think that was very important and wise decision because it's a way to guarantee that it also impacts local economy in a country like Colombia where, you know, some hotels and others are being very hit by COVID. By the U.S. funding the maintenance of these people, you know, their stay, their food, the health care needs, whatever is required, I think is very useful and wise. And I think that made also the decision...

SHAPIRO: So you're saying American dollars are going to those hotels that might otherwise be empty because of the pandemic.

PINZON: It's a way to put it. And I think that's something that can be helpful as well.

SHAPIRO: Are you at all concerned about the security or health screening that the Afghans went through? This was executed in such haste. What if these people arrive and they have the coronavirus or the U.S. eventually decides that it does not want to take in somebody because they haven't passed the screening?

PINZON: There are apparently three criterias that are part of the discussion right now. One is health care. We wish them to be vaccinated and have the right quarantines. Second, I think it's important to be sure that the United States is really seeking for people that does not have any relation with something that is concerning for us. And thirdly, well, we understand that most of these people is coming to Colombia with the objective of getting into the United States. But necessarily, we will need to have prepare a criteria in order to define what will happen to those few, maybe, that do not get the screening. But I think most of these people will, at the end, come to the United States hopefully.

SHAPIRO: Colombia is already dealing with a refugee crisis. Nearly 2 million Venezuelans are living in Colombia since Venezuela's government began to implode years ago. And so your country's social services are already strained. How does that affect your ability to support these thousands of Afghans?

PINZON: I think this program is a little bit different. We're speaking on up to 4,000 people from Afghanistan. And they are, you know, going into specific places that will be predefined (ph), screened before. And the U.S. logistics will take care of their needs. And hopefully most of them will relatively soon move into the United States as is their expectation.

SHAPIRO: Any refugee resettlement program is going to involve difficult cultural adjustments. And I know this is only a temporary situation, but you have people arriving with almost nothing who likely do not speak Spanish. Many have experienced trauma. Do you have plans to address those challenges?

PINZON: I think those are part of the conversations we're having between our immigration authorities, Colombia side, and the United States State Department and homeland people - you know, how to really think through all these difficult things, you know? This is happening as we speak. That's the challenge that all of us have.

SHAPIRO: That is Colombia's ambassador to the U.S., Juan Carlos Pinzon. Thank you for joining us today.

PINZON: My pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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