When evacuees from Afghanistan began to arrive at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst last week it was not the first time New Jersey served as a refuge and gateway for those fleeing war-torn countries.
The state and military sites located there have played significant roles in past efforts by the federal government to resettle large numbers of refugees, including from Hungary and Kosovo.
On Friday, 1,192 evacuees from Afghanistan were at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, said Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, during a media briefing. They landed at Dulles International Airport along with thousands of other refugees, who have been taken to three other bases in Virginia, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Those who have families already living here, would be released to relatives eventually, while others will be paired with resettlement agencies, officials said.
“We are a very diverse state, and we have a large Muslim population to begin with, and one of the largest South Asian populations in the country and I think that will help with the cultural adjustment here,’’ said William Westerman, a sociology and anthropology professor who runs the Ethnic and Immigration Studies Program at the New Jersey City University, of the new arrivals.
Thousands from Hungary
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which could house up to 9,500 evacuees, may erect up to 378 tents as well as use existing buildings to house Afghans, according to a military report on the environmental impact of the operation. The Afghan refugees will stay on the base until their immigration and screening processes are complete, officials said.
They represent the latest group of refugees to arrive in New Jersey, which has a history of welcoming immigrants dating back to post-World War II, Westerman said. Probably the most notable was the arrival of people fleeing the Hungarian Revolution.
In 1956, a military site in Piscataway, known as Camp Kilmer, served as a receiving center for more than 30,000 Hungarians refugees. The barracks, which had gone unused for years, were reopened temporarily for the newly arrived and those helping them at the site.
While the refugees lived at the barracks, the federal government provided different services to help in their transition, including language and cultural classes, as well as addressing their religious needs.
Many Hungarian refugees, with the help of resettlement organizations, found a place to live and work and begin new lives in New Jersey and other states.
Fleeing the Kosovo War
Four decades later, Fort Dix received more than 4,000 ethnic Albanians fleeing the Kosovo War during what was called “Operation Provide Refuge.”
On May 6, 1999, the first 447 refugees landed at McGuire Air Force Base and were taken to temporary quarters at Fort Dix. Between May 6 and July 9, 4,025 refugees were processed there, more than a quarter of the 13,989 Kosovars admitted to the United States during that time, according to the Congressional Research Service.
As well as being part of the federal government’s large-scale resettlement efforts, New Jersey has also continued for years to receive refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. The U.S. admits refugees from more than 60 countries under the program. In the 2018 fiscal year, for example, refugees came mainly from Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Ukraine and Bhutan. Many Syrians fleeing the Syrian Civil War have also come to New Jersey through the refugee program in the past decade.
Under the program, anyone who applies must undergo lengthy screening. They are then invited to the U.S. by the Department of State and are eligible to work and live in the country legally.
Although the U.S. has resettled tens of thousands of refugees through the years, its resettlement program has received fewer people in recent years.
In the 2016 fiscal year, the U.S. admitted nearly 85,000 refugees; four years later that number had declined to 11,814. President Donald Trump, through an executive order, reduced the refugee cap to historic lows during his time in the White House.
— Graphic by Genesis Obando