31 Aug 2021

Afghanistan evacuations: Cabinet working on 'second phase'

4:43 pm on 31 August 2021

Cabinet is exploring a second phase evacuation from Afghanistan, and the effects resettlement would have on New Zealand.

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Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Speaking to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee this morning, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said there would be a second phase of the response to the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan for New Zealand and its international partners.

"There is a second phase for those countries and for New Zealand as well," she said. "I would say that this is a further piece of advice that Cabinet has sought from myself and [Immigration Minister Kris] Faafoi in terms of an approach."

"Cabinet's asked for further information around the second phase of a response in relation to Afghanistan ... our first priority was in this initial set of people who were covered by this 16th of August criteria. That's been our first commitment."

Under questioning from Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, Mahuta said she was not at this point in a position to widen the criteria for allowing people into New Zealand beyond what had been decided by Cabinet on 16 August.

Mahuta said New Zealand's approach to refugee resettlement was in line with the United Nations Human Rights Commission's refugee resettlement programme, and that remained true.

No commitments on wider eligibility criteria, refugee quota change

Ghahraman said Australia, UK and Canada had committed to take a specific number of refugees from Afghanistan, and asked whether New Zealand would look at that next.

Canada committed to taking 20,000 refugees, UK committed to 20,000, and Australia 3000.

Mahuta said they would take on board what other countries were doing but the advice at this point was to identify what the difficulties of a second phase evacuation would be, and the effects on New Zealand of supporting resettlement.

"Our work isn't finished. We know that there are a number of New Zealand citizens and permanent residents who remain in Afghanistan ... I cannot stress enough the fact that we were unable to achieve the full extraction of everybody who was able to be extracted."

At its peak, MFAT had 171 staff assigned to handle the all of government response to Afghanistan, with staff rostered on to shifts and officials providing further consular assistance overseas.

She said New Zealand's efforts now would require cooperation with international partners.

"It's a very complex situation on the ground. We are very mindful that the safety of getting people to an extraction point is somewhat precarious at this moment."

She said the number of people seeking help from New Zealand may change if eligibility criteria shifted.

"In terms of those who find their own way to third party countries, that might again shift. And then the type of eligibility will be something that will be shifting a little bit as well."

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief executive and secretary Chris Seed said they suspected more than 300 people remained in Afghanistan who were eligible to come to New Zealand, including citizens, families and those who had already been granted visas.

The ministry would be setting up a portal online where people who had visas could register their details, he said, and they were aware of some who had fled across borders who may also be eligible.

"We continue to talk to regional countries about to what extent they will allow people to travel across their borders."

There were some who would have fled to other neighbouring countries, and at least three families had also managed to get out commercially to Africa and Europe respectively, he said.

'There were no lists'

National's foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee said he appreciated the enormous efforts of the NZDF, but he knew at least 43 families who were previously unknown to New Zealand organisations who had not been able to be evacuated.

"None of them have got out ... why do the ministries not have a list of people who assisted," he asked.

Seed said more than $100m had been spent across Bamyan in a decade on multiple projects, in multiple areas, with multiple contractors and multiple third parties.

"Clearly the idea that we would collect and collate lists of every person that any of those projects came into contact with, it simply wasn't the way we operated and wasn't tenable.

"People who - either under the previous criteria or the criteria agreed by Cabinet on the 16th of August - there were no lists that we could go to."

Mahuta said the widened criteria for extraction and resettlement offered by the government had also contributed to a rapid increase in the number of people seeking to flee to New Zealand.

Chief of Defence Force Kevin Short said under the 2012 criteria, interpreters were offered a resettlement or three years salary to travel where they wanted to go.

"There were choices for that particular group ... they were out on the patrols with our men and women in uniform."

He said other locally employed staff including engineers, mechanics, cooks and cleaners were not part of the original offer but had been included in the wider criteria in August and it was they who were coming forward now.

Seed said officials only had four or five days to make judgments about whether those people met the new criteria.

Evacuees: the numbers

Seed said that on 11 August, there were 11 people registered in Afghanistan on the ministry's SafeTravel website, but two weeks later that number had risen to 767.

He said there were reasons why people may or may not list on the website, including those who had lived in Afghanistan and considered it their permanent home; those who were happy with their circumstances until the crisis escalated; and some people who did not have the right to come to New Zealand.

"The numbers that I have, the total number of potential consular cases was 737, of which there was a group of New Zealand citizens and permanent residence holders which is a round number of about 200. The rest, then, [was] made up of various other visa holders.

"We think we know that 372 have departed from Afghanistan ... and we think there might be 365 still in the country and of those, 51 ... are identified as New Zealand citizens and 52 as New Zealand permanent residents."

He said just because they were on the consular list did not mean they were necessarily wanting to leave Afghanistan.

Mahuta also said numbers may change as some of those who had identified themselves still had to be verified, some would have fled to other countries, and more may arise as criteria changed.

'A stain on our work in Afghanistan'

Speaking in Parliament, National Party leader Judith Collins said the fact many Afghan allies had been left behind was extremely concerning.

"There's a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions happening in Afghanistan, and it is concerning that the government seems to have been caught so unprepared. It is a stain on our work in Afghanistan," she said.

Collins noted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had in February this year indicated New Zealand would withdraw its forces from the country, and that Faafoi had reportedly rejected applications from people who had helped New Zealand's efforts there as recently as May.

"The people left behind may well be the drivers, the labourers, the interpreters, the cleaners, and the cooks-innocent people to whom we owe a debt," Collins said. "The lives of these people are now at risk but the government hasn't explained why those pleas were rejected."

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard declined Collins' request for an urgent debate on the evacuations and provision of residence to Afghan allies, saying there had been an opportunity for ministers to be questioned on that after Ministerial Statements.

Defence Minister Peeni Henare - who was also present at the select committee - would not give a definitive answer when Collins asked how many Afghans who supported the defence force were able to be evacuated.

"The numbers that were evacuated from the airport in Kabul are currently still being processed," he said. "A number of the evacuees are still being processed, and the numbers will be clear on who exactly was evacuated. From there, we'll have a better sense of who was left behind."

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