Prospect of rescuing all New Zealanders in Afghanistan dwindling

David White stuff.co.nz
An RNZAF Hercules leaves Whenuapai Airbase for a mercy flight to Afghanistan.

The prospect of rescuing all New Zealanders and Afghan allies from Afghanistan appears to be dwindling, as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warns some won’t get out.

New Zealanders in Afghanistan are abandoning efforts to reach Kabul international airport, as they risk gunfire from Taliban and international forces, and fail to break through crowds of Afghans seeking to escape.

“People are say the Taliban is trying to go [to] everyone's house ... I’m not sure what they're going to do when they come,” said a New Zealand citizen trapped in Kabul, who Stuff has agreed not to name due to the risk posed to her.

The woman, who was born in Afghanistan, returned to the country nearly three months ago with her husband and one-year-old daughter, to visit her husband’s sick father. All are seeking to return to New Zealand on an evacuation flight.

Afghan security guards stand on a wall as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday.
AP
Afghan security guards stand on a wall as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday.

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After receiving emailed instructions from Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) officials, she tried twice to reach Kabul’s international airport. But on both days she was turned away due to gunfire.

“There was shooting near to me, in front of me they were shooting, and then my daughter was scared. And my husband said, 'We can't go in'.

"No-one was there to help me out. I got the email [saying] there are going to be armies, people to help you out like Australian people or maybe New Zealand people. But I haven't seen anyone.”

She feared the crowds would not dissipate in time for the United States’ withdrawal from Kabul’s airport, which may take place in 10 days’ time, and she believed that as an Afghan-New Zealander the Taliban may stop her from leaving.

“If the Taliban get the airport, they’re not going to let us go back to our home in New Zealand,” she said.

Ardern, speaking at a Covid-19 press conference on Saturday afternoon, said the Government’s mission to evacuate New Zealanders and Afghan allies left stranded by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan had been “hampered” by chaos outside the city’s international airport.

“I am concerned that because of the situation on the ground, that we do need to start working on what the next stage will be, because it does not look like we're going to get everyone out that we want to get out.”

An RNZAF Hercules is loaded and prepared for takeoff at Whenuapai Airbase on Thursday. As of Saturday evening, it was yet to reach the Middle East.
DAVID WHITE/STUFF
An RNZAF Hercules is loaded and prepared for takeoff at Whenuapai Airbase on Thursday. As of Saturday evening, it was yet to reach the Middle East.

Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour, the Commander of Joint Forces New Zealand, confirmed in a statement that a group of New Zealanders and their families had been flown out of Kabul on an Australia Air Force flight, to the United Arab Emirates.

He did not say how many had been evacuated, nor did Gilmour answer a question about how many New Zealanders had reached Kabul airport.

He said there were 18 Defence Force staff on the ground at Kabul international airport. There were also a “small number” of Immigration New Zealand staff in the United Arab Emirates to help with processing Afghans that New Zealand hoped to resettle.

It remained uncertain when the C130 Hercules deployed for the evacuation flights would reach Kabul. As of Saturday evening, online flight tracking website Flightradar24 showed the plane was travelling across the Indian Ocean.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said chaos outside the international airport in Kabul had “hampered” NZ’s evacuation efforts.
ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said chaos outside the international airport in Kabul had “hampered” NZ’s evacuation efforts.

“We have been working alongside partner nations to facilitate evacuations, establishing a centre for evacuees inside the airport, and liaising with those wanting to evacuate Afghanistan ... We are continuing to work to get others out as quickly as possible,” Gilmour said.

An MFAT spokeswoman said officials had identified 206 New Zealanders and family members eligible for the evacuation flights.

This number had grown throughout the week, in part due to Immigration New Zealand approving visas for 94 Afghan nationals since Monday, 54 of which were partners or dependents of New Zealand residents.

MFAT continued to advise New Zealanders try to reach Kabul airport “if and when they judge it safe to do so”.

“Forming groups with other New Zealand passport and visa holders, and together showing their documents to soldiers on the gate, may increase their chances of being admitted through the gate.”

MFAT did not respond to a question of how many Afghan citizens had been approved for resettlement for their connection with New Zealand’s Defence Force, police, aid programmes, or the Operation Burnham inquiry.

A representative of a group of 37 Defence Force tractor drivers, labourers, cleaners, and cooks said on Saturday that all but two of the group had made MFAT’s list. A man who has documentation appearing to show he was a supplier to the Defence Force in Afghanistan said he had not made the list.

Duane Wilkins spent two years in Afghanistan and is distressed by what is now happening in the country, where he was a foreign aid worker.
Duane Wilkins/Stuff
Duane Wilkins spent two years in Afghanistan and is distressed by what is now happening in the country, where he was a foreign aid worker.

Duane Wilkins, a former aid worker who lives in Lower Hutt, is among New Zealanders advocating for the Government to rescue an Afghan national, a private security operator who saved his life.

“Taliban were attacking our compound at one end, and he whisked me away at other, to safety. This guy has saved the lives of numerous expats ... As a security guard, he’s employed by contractors, so he’s not directly employed by any government.”

Wilkins travelled with the man as he did quality assurance on aid projects across the country, including the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team’s work in Bamyan province.

Wilkins had provided the man’s paperwork to MFAT officials, who said they would consider his case.

Former Labour MP Chris Carter, who ran United Nations Development Programme projects in Afghanistan for four years, said he had been writing “endless” letter of recommendations for his former workers who hoped to escape to Canada.

Ex-Labour MP Chris Carter has urged the Government to expedite some pending visas.
Emma Allen/Stuff
Ex-Labour MP Chris Carter has urged the Government to expedite some pending visas.

"Three of our closest allies, the United States, the UK, and Canada, have all agreed to take large numbers of Afghans,” he said.

New Zealand should make a similar offer, he said, and he had spoken with his former Labour colleagues, Associate Immigration Minister Phil Twyford, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni, and MP Vanushi Walters​, about this.

"I'm not talking about 20,000 ... We could certainly bring a number of more Afghans from families that are connected to New Zealand, have relatives living in New Zealand, and are at risk.”

But the Government has not indicated it would consider such a sweeping offer.

Ardern on Saturday said the Government had previously decided to “broadly” increase refugee numbers – a rise in the refugee quota from 1000 to 1500 that came into effect in 2020, but hasn’t actually occurred due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“[It's] too early for us to say what the makeup of Afghan nationals will be amongst that ... This is going to be an area where there will be a large number of refugees in the future and it's something we'll work through,” Ardern said.