23 Aug 2021

First Afghanistan evacuees to land in New Zealand

8:00 pm on 23 August 2021

New Zealand's first group of evacuees from Afghanistan, after it was seized by the Taliban, are set to land this afternoon, the Defence Minister Peeni Henare says.

NZ Defence Force personnel boarding a Hercules plane.

An RNZAF C-130 Hercules aircraft has been sent to Afghanistan to help with evacuations (file image). Photo: Supplied / Ministry of Defence

Henare said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) had been in contact with more than 200 New Zealanders in Afghanistan, and this first group was able to be evacuated with help from partners including Australia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

He said MFAT had also been working with Immigration New Zealand (INZ) to secure visas for those Afghans determined by the government as having worked alongside the defence force, police and aid missions, or helped with the Operation Burnham inquiry.

"Our ability to assist individuals on the ground and at the airport in Kabul is limited but has been helped by the presence of our New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel working alongside our partners. Access into Kabul airport is extremely difficult and travel into Kabul from the provinces is almost impossible," Henare said.

"The New Zealand Government would also like to thank the US for helping to secure an entry for New Zealanders at Kabul airport, and Air New Zealand for its support in assisting to bring New Zealanders home from Australia."

In a media briefing today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the government will not be providing further information about the number of evacuees.

She says they were flown from Afghanistan to the UAE, where arrangements were made for their travel to New Zealand with the help of Australia's defence force. The group will go through managed isolation.

"The window to evacuate people out of Afghanistan is unfortunately very limited and despite our ongoing efforts we cannot guarantee we can assist all those who are seeking to evacuate."

Defence Commander Joint Forces New Zealand Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour said they were pleased to get the first group home.

"It's been a multi-agency effort to achieve this. Our personnel have been able to meet more New Zealanders, their families and other eligible nationals at the gates of the airport over the weekend and assist them to the evacuation centre inside, where they are being supported.

The situation on the ground in Kabul remains extremely challenging, and it has been distressing to see the chaotic scenes outside [the Kabul airport] and the desperation of some of those wanting to leave Afghanistan. Officials have been working hard to get information out to those New Zealanders and eligible nationals seeking to evacuate.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said they were advising people in Afghanistan to seek shelter and avoid Kabul Airport.

"Our ability to assist individuals on the ground is very limited. Access into Kabul airport remains extremely difficult and travel into Kabul from the provinces almost impossible. Given the security concerns and challenges at the gates of Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport in recent days, governments are working to establish a more orderly process at the airport gates," they said.

Immigration New Zealand acting deputy head of Immigration, Stephen Vaughan, said ongoing support would be provided to those arriving from Afghanistan.

"All individuals arriving in New Zealand for the first time will be provided with the standard settlement support that refugees arriving under the annual quota would receive and would be able to participate in parts of the reception programme centred on working and living in New Zealand, as well as English language classes," Vaughan said.

Australia evacuated 300 people on four flights out of Kabul on Saturday, including some New Zealanders, and a New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules with about 80 military personnel aboard headed to Afghanistan on Thursday to help with evacuations.

The government a week ago announced plans to evacuate New Zealanders and those who had helped New Zealand efforts in Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the capital, Kabul, and declared the war over.

The group's securing of the country took place much faster than international observers expected after the United States pulled its troops out, and led to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country.

The Taliban has promised safety and security, and vowed to preserve women's rights, but there have been reports of a door-to-door manhunt for those who helped New Zealand and women's groups are sceptical of the Taliban's promises.

There have been violent scenes as thousands hoping to flee the country try to pass through barricades being manned by Taliban members.

There are reports the Taliban has even blocked those with the necessary documents to travel.

New Zealand has also provided $3 million in funding for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Refugee Agency in Afghanistan.

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