UPDATED: The first flights to evacuate both Norwegian and Afghan citizens from Kabul have arrived in Oslo, but hundreds if not thousands more people fleeing the country are expected. Chaos after the withdrawal of NATO allies is complicating the evacuation process, while uncertainty prevails over how many Afghan refugees Norway will be willing to take in.
“I’m not even sure whether we’ll be able to get all our Norwegian citizens out of of Kabul in this phase,” Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide said at a press conference Friday afternoon. “The situation is chaotic.”
Earlier in the week a flight originating in Kabul had landed in Oslo, but with just 14 people on board. Søreide had said she was “both glad and relieved that our five (dipomats) at the embassy in Kabul have come home.” An additional nine Norwegians from the defense department were also on board, and another flight landed in Oslo on Friday. It was carrying 23 Norwegian citizens plus some Afghans and their families who’d been working at Norway’s embassy in Kabul, which Søreide closed last last week.
Included among the evacuees returning home were correspondents for both Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) and TV2. “It’s good to be home,” Yama Wolasmal of NRK told one of his colleagues who was at Oslo’s main airport OSL Gardermoen to meet him. “We’ve had many incredibly intense days and there’s a lot to digest,” he added, referring to “so many people and all their destinies,” now in jeopardy after the radical Islamic organization Taliban regained power in Afghanistan after government officials fled.
“It’s been a dramatic situation, when we need to evacuate in a short time,” Søreide told reporters at a recent press conference. Neither she nor military officials will provide details of the evacuation process, but admit the actual numbers of those evacuated so far are tiny given all the people desperately trying to flee the Taliban.
Plenty of aircraft, but airport access blocked
Søreide said there was no lack of aircraft now on the ground in Kabul and ready to fly people out. The problem has been getting people into the airport area, which was cordoned off and patrolled by both Taliban and US soldiers who’ve reportedly been cooperating in what Wolasmal described as a “surrealistic” situation. Søreide called the situation outside the airport “chaotic” and changing all the time. Evacuation aircraft are in place, but both Søreide and Prime Minister Erna Solberg complain the problem is being able to fill them up.
Two Norwegians reported a harrowing experience trying to get through the masses of people assembled around the Kabul airport’s perimeter. When they got closer to the area where soldiers were checking travel documents to allow entry into the airport, they said they were harassed and even assaulted. They gave up and went back to their residences in Kabul, in the hopes the chaos would subside.
Søreide took part in an extraordinary meeting of NATO foreign ministers where they shared frustrating experiences tied to their evacuation plans. “We sent a clear message,” Søreide said. “The Taliban has a responsibility to uphold human rights, especially for women and girls.” She said she was glad the first flight with Norwegian civilians landed in Oslo in Friday, but she wishes the flight could have been filled up with at least more of those clamouring to leave Afghanistan. “There’s no system for entrance to the airport,” she said. “On the contrary, we’re seeing that people are being injured in the chaos.”
Søreide and the ministry has called on Norwegian citizens still in Afghanistan to report their locations. They’re believed to number around 160 plus locally employed personnel who’ve been cleared for evacuation to Norway. “We have lots of hope that we’ll manage to get all our locally employed staff and their families (all of whom are considered targets of the Taliban) safely out,” Søreide told NRK. “The greatest uncertainty involves the Taliban’s intentions. They’re saying many of the right things, but we still have to see what they’ll actually do.”
Some Norwegian officials returned
Norway has sent its ambassador, Ole Andreas Lindeman, back to Kabul to lead the evacuation process. A new crew of military medics has also traveled to Kabul to relieve the staff of Norway’s remaining field hospital in Kabul. Extra personnel will handle communication with other military forces, communication with government officials in Norway and other security tasks.
It remained unclear exactly how many Norwegians, many of whom work for humanitarian organizations in Kabul, need to be evacuated. “We have registered 163 through the (government’s) website reiseregistrering.no,” Søreide said, “but there can be many more people behind every registration, because of their family members. We have contact with them all.”
Afghan citizens approved for evacuation and arriving in Norway will be taken to the national asylum reception center at Råde, near Fredrikstad. They will need to go through quarantine and entry procedures there before being transferred to housing in a Norwegian town or city.
Practical problems for Afghans seeking asylum
Afghan citizens who’ve worked in the past for Norwegian forces, and are thus targets of the Taliban, face much more difficult procedures. Many have complained that it’s difficult to get in contact with Norwegian officials, that emails go unanswered and that it’s difficult to get to the airport, or even to Kabul for those living outside the capital.
One man who worked as a driver and interpreter for Norwegian forces in the northern Afghan region of Mazar-i-Sharif told newspaper Klassekampen that neither he nor his family have felt safe to leave their homes for many days. Now they need to seek asylum in Norway, which is supposed to be possible after government officials have accepted some responsibility for former as well as current employees.
“We are very grateful that Norwegian authorities seem willing to save our lives,” the man told Klassekampen. “Now they just need to tell us how they can help us get out of the country.” He had so far not received an answer, nor had Klassekampen after contacting the foreign, justice and defense ministries on his behalf.
“The defense department and the ministries are working to gain an overview (of all those suddenly needing protection from the Taliban),” a Justice Ministry official wrote in an email to Klassekampen. “When the overview is clear, immigration authorities will evaluate the situation.”
Political pressure to take in more refugees
Prime Minister Erna Solberg initially claimed Norway had no special responsibility for those who worked for Norway years ago, nor for those who earlier sought asylum but had their applications rejected because their situation was not deemed to be threatening. That has now changed after the Taliban takeover, and government officials are being pressured to acknowledge that.
“Norwegian politicians, from the (anti-immigration) Progress Party to the Socialist Left Party (which is more liberal towards immigration) have a heavy responsibility for this war,” Bjørnar Moxnes, a Member of Parliament and leader of the Reds Party, told Klassekampen. “That means Norway of course has a moral responsibility to help bring those who have helped Norwegian forces to safety now that the war has been lost.” Moxnes said it would be “naive and dangerous” to believe the Taliban’s current claims that there will be no reprisals against Afghans who worked for NATO allies.
Moxnes also said Norwegian officials can make themselves vulnerable if they don’t quickly get former Afghan aides and their families out of Afghanistan: “There’s a clear risk that the Taliban could threaten to injure or kill them at a later point in time, in order to pressure Norway into fulfilling their demands.”
Norwegian authorities are already bracing for a new influx of asylum seekers following the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. While Canada and the US are offering to accept thousands of refugees, as is the UK, Solberg hasn’t been willing to budge from the 3,000 UN-approved refugees that include people from all over the world. With a national election looming on September 13, however, both Solberg and other candidates may be pressured into modifying their stance.