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An RNZAF Hercules at Whenuapai Airbase prepared for a mercy flight to Afghanistan. Photo / Michael Craig
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warns a mercy dash to Kabul to rescue New Zealanders and Afghan allies might not be able to evacuate everyone they want to.
It comes as the situation in the Afghanistan capital worsens, just days after the Taliban reclaimed control of the country after a 20-year war.
“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,” Ardern said on Saturday.
“There is a certain window everyone is using, to use the secure space available at Kabul airport, but it is an entirely separate issue people’s ability to connect safely with the airport.”
On Friday it was confirmed the first New Zealanders trapped in Afghanistan since the Taliban dramatically took power have been whisked out of the country on a mercy dash.
American soldiers and other Nato allies are in control of security inside the airport.
But with the Taliban controlling checkpoints in and out of Kabul airport, access has been “extremely difficult”, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade acknowledges.
As disturbing images continue to come in from outside Kabul airport, where thousands of desperate Afghans have been trying to flocking to since the Taliban took control of the war-torn country on Sunday, the New Zealand Government made the urgent decision to send help.
Officials have been contacting individuals stuck in Afghanistan and making arrangements to try to get them out.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) C-130 Hercules aircraft flew out of RNZAF Base Auckland Thursday morning on a mercy dash to Kabul to rescue New Zealanders, interpreters, and others who worked with Kiwi troops fighting the Taliban.
MFAT says it is aware of 161 New Zealanders and their families in Afghanistan who are eligible to enter New Zealand, “many of whom we are providing consular support”.
Staff are also assisting a small number of people who the Government has determined as having worked alongside NZDF, including interpreters, and those who materially assisted in the Operation Burnham inquiry and on police and aid missions.
Ardern said on Saturday New Zealand was working with its partners who were assisting the New Zealand effort now, and New Zealand staff would assist others once they arrived.
“I don’t believe we arrived too late. It is an international effort, not just uplifting our people. We are working closely together to pick up one another’s citizens and Afghani nationals.”
According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, about 250,000 Afghans have been forced to flee their homes since late May, most of them women and children.
Both Canada and the United Kingdom have pledged to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees, but Ardern said New Zealand would not yet be making a decision on that.
New Zealand was looking to further increase its refugee quota, but it was too soon to say what the Afghani makeup would be, she said.
“This will be an area where there will be a large number of refugees in the future and that is something we will work through.”
Per head of population, New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of refugee acceptance in the world even after the current Government increased the annual refugee quota by 500.
It accepts 1500 refugees a year – or about 0.3 refugees per 1000 people. This ranks New Zealand 95th in the world.
Similar-sized countries like Norway and Ireland accept 11.29 and 1.22 refugees per 1000 residents, ranking them 15th and 69th respectively.
National Party foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee said it was a “chaotic situation” and not fair to say if anybody should have acted sooner.
“Intelligence clearly was that Kabul would not fall and there would be time for an arrangement with the Taliban.
“It is a horrible situation. I do not think we are able to say anything should have been done sooner, it is just a mess.”
On refugees, Brownlee said it would be “some time” before agencies were able to figure out where Afghan people would fall in the international refugee programme.
There were already about 20 million people displaced around the world.
“If you just go to the latest hotspot then you are leaving out others who have been in that situation longer.”