Afghanistan: Desperate pleas for Government to help Afghans under threat from Taliban

Families and friends of Afghan nationals who supported New Zealand's presence in Afghanistan continue to plead for them to be given visas and a safe passage out of the country.

It comes as human rights advocates on Thursday presented a 20,000-strong petition to MPs pressing for the Government to extend its evacuation efforts to a wider group of locals in Afghanistan.

Over the last week, New Zealand has been working with international partners to get people out of the nation which earlier this month fell the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban. 

Repatriation efforts have focused on New Zealand citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families, as well as trying to extract Afghan nationals who worked with our people during their deployment over the last 20 years and may now be the target of reprisals. 

The first group of evacuees arrived back on Monday, with more expected in the coming days. Our C-130 Hercules completed its second flight into Kabul overnight, evacuating citizens, families and other visa holders. 

But it's become clear not everyone who wants to get on board a flight will be able to. Kabul's international airport - where nations have been evacuating people from - has been a site of chaos, with thousands attempting to get access through the Taliban-controlled streets. 

Tensions are also only escalating, with the US - which other nations rely on to manage the evacuation efforts - set to withdraw at the end of the month. The Taliban won't allow foreign troops to remain past then and has also begun blocking access to the airport to Afghan nationals, wanting them to retain their expertise locally. 

There's also the risk of terrorist attacks, with the Government now advising people to avoid the airport. 

Dr Ellen Nelson, a former Kiwi army officer who worked in Afghanistan, has been trying to assist Afghan nationals who worked with the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) come to Aotearoa. She's been working personally with seven families, all of whom have applied for visas, but are yet to receive them.

While she thanked everyone at the NZDF, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Immigration NZ for their tireless work on the mission, she is pleading for the Government to ensure everything is being done that can be. 

"My absolute plea is please allocate any and every resource available to help this amazing team at Immigration who are processing these visas so they can be done in time," she told Newshub.

"We are not able to control the situation on the ground and there are a lot of unknowns and this situation is very fluid. We cannot control that. What New Zealand can control is who gets issued a visa. That is the thing that the country has 100 percent control over. I beg the powers that be to allocate every resource possible to get these visas issued.

"Without a visa, these people cannot approach an airport. The Taliban will not let anyone anywhere near the airport unless they have a visa. The issuing of the visas is an absolutely critical component to give these people any chance of being able to board any type of evacuation aircraft."

There's a limited window for efforts.
There's a limited window for efforts. Photo credit: Getty Images.

An Afghan former interpreter who was one of 30 resettled in New Zealand in 2013 from the Bamyan province is also desperate for help for his family. 

He told Newshub his parents, brothers, sisters and nieces and nephews are being hunted by the Taliban for their connection to New Zealand.

A brother, who he says is "in very critical danger", previously worked with the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT) and applied for resettlement, but also is yet to receive a visa.

"We have a very good connection with NZPRT. They used to come to our house to teach our kids, our adults, our families, our sisters, brothers, English… We had a very close connection with them," he told Newshub.

"When the Taliban captured Bamyan, [my family] left Bamyan and they escaped into the mountains and they stayed for two or three nights with the kids, with everyone, with no food, no water, no blankets, nothing.

"They knew that if [the Taliban] came, for sure they would ask for them. They might get killed."

The family is now in Kabul, receiving phone calls from the Taliban, he said.

"They ring my brother and was telling them that we destroyed all your assets, all your properties and we got your cars, and threatened them to death."

He's hardly slept in weeks.

"I always talk to them. I always encourage them to stay away from the Taliban. They won't capture you at the moment… if anyone rings you from the Taliban, change the SIM cards."

The man's 70-year-old mother is the only one able to go out.

"She wears a burka to not be known to the Taliban. She goes outside and brings food for my dad and my two brothers and sisters. My brothers and sisters, they haven't been out in Kabul yet. It is just my mum who does the groceries."

Immigration New Zealand says it is working hard to facilitate visas for Afghan nationals with those are the partner or dependent of a New Zealander being prioritised. 

"We are taking a pragmatic approach to processing visa applications from Afghani nationals currently in Afghanistan, taking into account the uncertain situation there at the moment."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Thursday said the window to get people out was very short. 

"The number of people seeking to leave was enormous. I think it will be clear at the conclusion of this mission that every country will have some people they weren't able to bring out. Most of us will look to what the next steps will need to be."

"No one has gone in with the intention of leaving anyone behind but the reality of this situation has been extraordinarily difficult. Not only did we have a very small window in which to try and evacuate people, but we literally, across all international partners, there have been tens of thousands of people seeking to leave in very unsafe circumstances, some of them have been in provinces where it wasn't even possible for them to travel to Kabul. 

"We have always known that we were going to need to look at what would happen after this emergency mission."

Kabul's airport has become a site of chaos.
Kabul's airport has become a site of chaos. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Petition to bring more Afghans to New Zealand

A petition presented on Thursday to associate Immigration Minister Phil Twyford calls for the Government to bring more Afghan locals to New Zealand, including human rights champions and those vulnerable to attack, as well as to expedite visas. It's a joint effort from Amnesty International Aotearoa, ActionStation and Oxfam Aotearoa.

"Right now, people in Afghanistan face a deeply uncertain future," said Amnesty International Aotearoa campaigns director Lisa Woods. 

"Girls seeking an education. People from ethnic and religious minorities. Human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists. But also so many more people, just like you and I - those who simply want safety and the chance at a fulfilling life with their loved ones."

In a virtual meeting also attended by others like Green MP Golriz Ghahraman and members of the New Zealand Afghan community, Twyford thanked the advocates for making sure human rights were front and centre. 

He said he had heard from families of people who have made it out of Afghanistan as well as harrowing tales from those who were unsuccessful. 

"There will be people who spent yesterday desperately trying to get across the perimeter fence into the international airport at Kabu," he said.

"In this case that I am thinking of, people who were repeatedly beaten and injured by Taliban on the streets of Kabul yesterday and were unable to get into Kabul airport and missed the opportunity, even though they had visas, to be evacuated. It is heartbreaking and there are many, many people in that position right now." 

Twyford said he was "honoured" to receive the petition and that the Government "accepts and welcomes" the points made. 

"The evacuation effort over the last week or so is just the current instalment, but there will be more to come. There will be more diplomatic action, there will be more humanitarian support and I am sure there will be more resettlement." 

Speaking to reporters earlier on Thursday, Ardern said once the mission ends, Cabinet will work through a plan for those who remain. She said we will look to assist New Zealanders still there as well as Afghan nationals who helped our forces and others as part of wider humanitarian efforts. 

"We will have a particular eye on those who because of their human rights work, we would have concerns about." 

On Thursday morning, MFAT said, given the "rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan", New Zealand was no longer accepting applications from Afghan nationals for resettlement. It will continue processing those already lodged. 

Woods wasn't happy with the development.

"It’s actually not good enough to say they can’t, they can, and we’ll keep putting the pressure on until they do. We do have the capacity here in NZ to do more. The point is there are options here and the Government needs to be taking meaningful steps to do its bit."

Dr Nelson hopes applications will reopen eventually

"I understand that right now, given the extremely short window of opportunity, they do need to prioritise the applications that are already in the system to give the best chance of getting anybody out of there. But I do hope that they do afterwards continue to accept more applications and find some other way to continue to help these people beyond the August 31 deadline."