Govt considers using refugee quota for at-risk Afghans, as former interpreters continue protest

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The Government is considering filling unused refugee quota spots with at-risk Afghans, the first indication New Zealand may follow other countries in committing to taking refugees from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The confirmation came as a group of more than 15 former Afghan interpreters protested outside Parliament for a second day, demanding the immigration minister speak to them about their plea to have family members granted visas.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said he was unable to front the group, but his Labour Party colleagues had met with them. The interpreters want Faafoi to progress stalled family reunification visa applications, and make a commitment to resettle their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

“I don’t want to get into the habit of going out there whenever someone arrives, but we understand their plight, and we’re asking officials to do some work to understand what we can do more,” he said.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi at Question Time in the House. (file photo)

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Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi at Question Time in the House. (file photo)

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“We understand that the situation is pretty volatile there and understand that they would like their families to come home. But we’re working with others to make sure what is possible, and what more New Zealand can do.”

The Government has previously been wary of extending its offer of refuge, or to progress paused immigration applications for family members of Afghan New Zealanders.

Both Canada and the United Kingdom have promised to take in 20,000 Afghans each, and the United States expected to take on 50,000 refugees. New Zealand partnered with these countries in military operations in Afghanistan during a two-decade long conflict which international countries withdrew from last month.

Afghan interpreters, who helped NZ troops, spent a second day in protest on the forecourt of Parliament. They wanted Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi to talk to them about getting their families to New Zealand.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Afghan interpreters, who helped NZ troops, spent a second day in protest on the forecourt of Parliament. They wanted Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi to talk to them about getting their families to New Zealand.

Separate to this, Cabinet ministers have also been taking advice on the next phase of its efforts to evacuate more than 400 New Zealand citizens and Afghans with visas from Afghanistan and surrounding countries, after an airlift effort that ended in late August helped evacuate more than 300 people out of Kabul’s international airport.

Faafoi on Tuesday said there would still be people in Afghanistan who would “lay claim” to meeting the Government’s existing criteria for resettlement, due to their working with the Defence Force or Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

He also said the Government was also considering how it could use the refugee programme.

“The quota was 1500 per annum, we had to reduce that as a result of Covid. We’ve asked officials to see what it would take to be able to get that back up to capacity or do more within that space as well.

“We have listened to some of the communities here in New Zealand who are saying, you know, we should look at particular cohorts first … But there are logistics challenges along the way, MIQ [managed isolation], making sure we resettle these people.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern answering questions in the House on Tuesday. (file photo)

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern answering questions in the House on Tuesday. (file photo)

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said managed isolation and immigration difficulties were “secondary” concerns to her.

“For those for whom there are ongoing humanitarian needs, they either may have links to New Zealand, or they may not. What will New Zealand’s ongoing role be around humanitarian assistance? Be it through supporting people to reside elsewhere, or general humanitarian assistance.”

Nawidullah Atayee, a former Afghan interpreter who was among those outside Parliament on Tuesday, said the group was not satisfied with the response from Faafoi so far.

“The answer we’re getting right now is a political answer.”

Raza Khadim, left, and Nawidullah Atayee, former Afghan interpreters who helped New Zealand troops.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Raza Khadim, left, and Nawidullah Atayee, former Afghan interpreters who helped New Zealand troops.

Standing behind Atayee and the interpreters was Justin Harris, a former New Zealand soldier.

He was wearing the same desert camouflage uniform he wore when he left Afghanistan 12 years beforehand, and had brought tea, coffee, biscuits and figs to sustain the interpreters in their protest.

“I really just want to show my support for them,” he said.

“Keeping families together is very important, especially when you have people who have helped us in this respect. And by doing that they have put their families in danger … to relieve that, bring them home.