As the lead Federal agency for Operation Allies Welcome (OAW), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) coordinated efforts across the Federal Government to resettle individuals evacuated from Afghanistan. Part of DHS’ responsibility was staffing safe havens at U.S. military installations with enough detailed DHS employees to carry out specific leadership and support roles.
An Office of Inspector General (OIG) evaluation of OAW conducted fieldwork from November 2021 to January 2022, including visiting six of eight safe havens where DHS employees served. OIG found that DHS advertised the detail opportunities to its employees but did not direct components to commit all necessary staff and did not initially receive funding. Consequently, DHS did not fill all the positions.
DHS also recruited employee volunteers through the DHS Volunteer Force (VF). However, OIG found that 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.
OIG’s report notes that on August 20, 2021, the DHS Deputy Under Secretary for Management sent a DHS-wide email encouraging employees to volunteer in support of OAW. In that month alone, 1,580 prospective volunteers registered with the DHS VF. More than two months later, on October 31, 2021, the DHS VF sent an email message thanking prospective volunteers for registering and shared that the needs of OAW were “as urgent as ever.” The email also requested that volunteers respond to DHS VF communications “in a timely manner” while acknowledging that many weeks or months had passed since some volunteers first registered as volunteers. Volunteers confirmed receiving no communication from the DHS VF about deployments for one to two months after they registered and described experiencing uncertainty about when they would deploy. Some volunteers proactively emailed the DHS VF after hearing nothing for weeks or months after submitting their applications. However, OIG found their emails sometimes went unanswered. DHS VF staff cited funding challenges, competing priorities, and a limited pool from which to recruit volunteers as reasons affecting the number and timeliness of volunteer deployments in support of OAW. OIG said however that there may have been a cadre of volunteers willing to deploy quickly who were not deployed.
In addition, all OAW volunteers OIG asked confirmed the DHS VF did not provide orientation or training in preparation for their deployments before or after arriving at safe havens. Upon arrival, most volunteers were only provided a tour of the base. However, the DHS VF’s “frequently asked questions” webpage states, “Many of the volunteer positions do not require any formal qualification, and training will be provided before performance of duties.” Volunteers told OIG that they administratively reported to the onsite volunteer coordinators but functionally managed themselves.
OIG found that the majority of safe haven staff were employees from other Federal agencies and NGOs, whom DHS relied on to perform OAW mission duties. Responsibilities performed by OAW partners varied by safe haven, but at every location the Department of Defense (DOD) provided housing, meals, medical care, cultural and religious services, and recreation, at a minimum, and supplied approximately 87 percent of staff across the safe havens. Safe haven leaders reported a positive working relationship with DOD at the safe havens, but one Deputy Federal Coordinator stated that DHS staff shortages affected the military’s mission because DOD had to commit additional staff to compensate. The same leader stated his safe haven team sent what he believed were “conservative and realistic” requests for employees to the DHS’ Unified Coordination Group that went unfulfilled and that it was “embarrassing” for DHS [safe haven] leadership to hear from a DOD general that the base cannot afford to lose any more soldiers to the OAW mission without it impacting mission readiness.
In summary, OIG determined that the shortage of DHS employees affected the safe havens’ ability to provide certain services to Afghan guests. Also, some DHS employee volunteers told the watchdog that they did not feel adequately supported before and during deployments. Some described difficulty reaching the DHS VF, and others were uncertain about how to make travel plans or complete administrative paperwork. Due to the shortage, DHS staff who were providing safe haven services reported working 10-12 hours per day, seven days per week, with one DHS employee having worked 190 hours in a pay period in addition to remaining on call 24/7.
Overall, the evaluation found that DHS did not have a structure to support volunteers for unfunded operations such as OAW. To build on lessons learned, OIG has made three recommendations to DHS. First, that it develops a framework for directing DHS components to deploy staff to support missions, including non-centrally funded, unplanned, or emergency operations, for which DHS resources are needed. Second, develop a volunteer deployment strategy that includes provisions for supporting volunteers, regardless of funding source. And finally, OIG said DHS should develop and implement training for DHS employee volunteers to prepare for deployment, including but not limited to training on how to complete administrative paperwork and make travel arrangements. DHS concurred and said work to address the recommendations has already been completed or will be completed by May 31, 2023.