Spain welcomes 300 Afghans but thousands more are still waiting to escape Taliban rule

Campaigners are urging western governments to do more to move vulnerable people out of Afghanistan

Afghans families arrive in Spain from Islamabad, one year on from the fall of Kabul. AFP
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Three hundred Afghan refugees began the first day of their new lives in Spain on Thursday after flying in from Pakistan.

After meeting the passengers at an airbase in Madrid, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said the Spanish government would now work "to help these people to integrate, given that it will be difficult for them to return to Afghanistan in the near future".

It was a long-awaited journey to safety for some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable citizens.

The year-long delay and relatively small number of people brought in by Madrid raises concerns over the efforts of western countries to resettle the Afghans they once worked with.

A year after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and two decades of Nato military and civilian presence on the ground abruptly ended, thousands of Afghans who once worked alongside western powers are still waiting to be plucked to safety.

After the Taliban takeover in August last year, a frenzied two-week period of evacuations ensued, in which more than 123,000 Afghans and citizens of European countries and the US were flown out of Afghanistan.

The last US-led troops withdrew on August 31, two weeks after the Taliban seized Kabul. Hundreds more people were allowed to leave on flights thereafter but the last official evacuation by air was on December 1.

Spain moved more than 2,000 people during the western withdrawal and the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said at the time that Madrid would not "lose interest in the Afghans who had remained" but wanted to leave.

Most of them were Afghans at risk of reprisals from the new Taliban rulers for having worked for Spanish forces or the Spanish embassy during Nato's presence. Yet thousands of such people remain in Afghanistan.

Campaigners, politicians and military personnel have spent the past 12 months urging countries in Europe and the US to do more to relocate them.

More than 18,000 people, including 6,000 British citizens, were flown from Afghanistan under Operation Pitting. The UK government confirmed that 9,500 of those were eligible under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap), a scheme for local people employed by UK military and civic institutions.

However, thousands more people thought to be eligible under the same scheme have been waiting months for their applications to be processed and are hiding from Taliban officials. Others are waiting in neighbouring Pakistan, where the UK has said it will be processing and transferring Afghans it plans to resettle in Britain.

In June, armed forces minister James Heappey said he expected a further 9,500 people to be eligible for resettlement under the Arap scheme.

Yet others who indirectly worked with British institutions are falling through the cracks.

A highly critical report from the foreign affairs committee earlier this year said there had been a “total absence of plans to evacuated Afghans who supported the UK missions without being directly employed, which has put lives at risk”.

The UK government pledged to bring 20,000 Afghan refugees to the UK over five years under a new scheme but most will have to make their way to a third country first.

More than 24,000 people were taken to Germany from Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul last year but as of July, nearly 11,000 Afghans were still waiting to be moved to the EU country.

Most of those who have been granted admissions approvals by the German government were still stuck in Afghanistan or neighbouring countries. German authorities say a “big problem” is the Taliban’s refusal to allow citizens to leave Afghanistan without a passport, which is exacerbated by the extremely slow pace of getting one issued.

Updated: August 11, 2022, 11:14 AM