16 Aug 2021

New Zealanders, at-risk Afghan nationals being helped to leave Afghanistan

4:34 pm on 16 August 2021

The government has agreed to help New Zealanders and their families evacuate from Afghanistan, as well as Afghan nationals deemed under risk.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced this afternoon that the Cabinet had also agreed to assist at least 37 Afghan nationals who worked with NZDF, police, MFAT or who helped with Operation Burnham and who now may be at risk.

An NZDF C-130 and personnel will be deployed for at least a month to help with evacuation efforts, but there are no more details at this stage.

Foreign officials had been working to bring home New Zealanders as Taliban militants secured control of all major Afghan cities.

President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country as the Taliban moved in, signalling the culmination of a long shift in power former NZ prime minister Helen Clark has labelled a "catastrophic failure" of Western foreign policy intelligence.

Ardern was joined by Defence Minister Peeni Henare and Chief of Defence Force Kevin Short to provide an update on the situation in Afghanistan when addressing media.

The prime minister said New Zealand was gravely concerned about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and "the advance of the Taliban and the threat that poses to those attempting to get out, including foreign nationals".

She said the government had offered 53 New Zealand citizens there consular support.

"We are working through this with the utmost urgency," she said.

She said the government would also look at ways New Zealand can support the humanitarian response.

Three aspects of New Zealand's assistance were discussed at Cabinet today, she said.

These were getting NZ citizens and their family out safely; support for Afghan nationals who assisted the NZ Defence Force and may be at risk, and NZ Defence Force deployment to the region to assist with evacuations.

MFAT officials are also looking at providing support to contact affected Afghanis. Potential partners include the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency.

Ardern said Cabinet would continue to make efforts to support New Zealand citizens and their families, and made an in-principle decision to help evacuate Afghan nationals who had helped the NZ Defence Force, police, MFAT, or provided material assistance to the Operation Burnham inquiry.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

This applied if there were reasonable grounds to believe the safety of the individual or their immediate family is at risk from their association with New Zealand and no other partner government would be more appropriate to help.

It would apply to the specific individual and their immediate nuclear family only.

Longer term there may be opportunities to resettle additional applicants from Afghanistan, she added.

The government was aware of 37 individuals who had helped the NZDF.

Defence officials were in close contact with partners to discuss operational decisions but this would not be discussed, partially for security reasons.

Short said there would be Defence personnel help with evacuating people, including providing security of the aircraft itself.

"What we will deploy with is people to maintain and operate the aircraft for a number of weeks, and also have our own air movements, maintenance personnel, logistics support, medical and security," he said.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

This may or may not include New Zealand's SAS.

"At this stage we're planning to deploy for a month but we're not sure the security situation will allow us to operate for that long, so we'll do as much as we can over the next few weeks."

Ardern said there was no expectation internationally that the situation in Afghanistan would deteriorate so quickly.

"But it has happened rapidly and so we have responded rapidly."

There had until recently been commercial opportunities for people in the country to flee, but that is no longer the case, she said, and the government was doing what it can to help.

Short says the NZDF is planning to work with Australia at this point but may do some New Zealand-only operations as well, if required.

Helping Afghan nationals

Ardern said some Afghan nationals would not have fallen within the criteria created by the 2012 National government, and work was being done to change the criteria but the decisions made by Cabinet now have ditched that completely.

Ardern said individuals would not be evacuated and brought to New Zealand immediately. "That will enable us some time us to work through the wider logistical arrangements around managed isolation," she said.

She said the numbers were believed to be small enough to be managable within the managed isolation contingency rooms New Zealand already had available.

Communication with people on the ground in Afghanistan is mostly being done at the moment through Immigration New Zealand, and agencies would need to work on expediting identity verification and matching people with lists provided by the New Zealand groups that have received help from locals.

Ardern said agencies for the most part had lists of individuals who had helped them, so any possible fraudulent applications would largely be people impersonating someone else.

The groups that have been identified are the ones who are being prioritised because they are the ones New Zealand has the ability to quickly help in this way.

Short said the troops deployed would not be readied for combat, but instead would have self-protection rules. The US and UK forces would have thousands of troops securing the airfield itself, he said.

He said they were planning on being able to help hundreds of people - about 200 from the initial family groupings of those who have helped the NZDF, and they expect there will be many more, for example those who helped the Operation Burnham inquiry.

Appeal to Taliban

Ardern appealed to the Taliban to show, by their actions, the kind of administration they intend to be and allow people to leave safely, take into account the wellbeing of women and girls, and their rights to education.

"The whole world will be watching," she said. "It will all come down to what's demonstrated, it will be all about the actions, not the words."

"New Zealand will always fall back on its values. What we want to see is human rights upheld. We want to see women and girls being able to access work and education - these are things that have traditionally not been available to them when there has been governance by the Taliban."

She said she spoke with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison about operational deployment and said each country would make their own decisions about who they were engaging with and assisting.

She confirmed New Zealand may also help other countries evacuate their foreign nationals.

Henare defended New Zealand's role in the country. He said about 3500 personnel have been sent to Afghanistan in the past 20 years or so, and "if we reflect back on it I am confident, and I believe that, our contribution is a positive one".

The comments were echoed by Ardern. She said very member of the NZDF who went to Afghanistan did so to make the lives of the people there better, "and they did make a difference".

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