A humanitarian effort led by Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard gave Afghans and their families a sanctuary amid the rapidly unfolding crisis.
A group of Afghans who worked for The New York Times landed, along with their families, safely early Wednesday morning. Not in New York or Washington, but at the Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City.
The arrival of the 24 families was the latest stopover in a terrible flight from Kabul. Mexico’s role in rescuing journalists from the Times and, if all goes according to plan, The Wall Street Journal, offers a confusing glimpse into the situation of the US government, as two of the most powerful news organizations in the country they desperately sought help away from Washington.
Mexican officials, unlike their counterparts in the United States, managed to overcome the bureaucracy of their immigration system to quickly provide the documents that, in turn, allowed Afghans to fly from the besieged Kabul airport to Doha, Qatar. The documents promised that Afghans would receive temporary humanitarian protection in Mexico while they explored future options in the United States or other countries.
“We are now committed to a foreign policy that promotes free expression, freedoms, and feminist values,” Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said in a telephone interview. Invoking a tradition of welcoming that includes from the Cuban independence leader, José Martí, in the 19th century, to German Jews and South American citizens fleeing coups, he said that Mexico had opened its doors to Afghan journalists “in order to protect them and to be consistent with this policy ”.
Ebrard added, by way of explanation of the country’s rapid performance: “We did not have time to have the normal official channels.”
The path taken by Afghan journalists and their families was arbitrary, intimate, and fragile, as has been everything in the frantic and scattered evacuation of Kabul. Ebrard was at home at around 5 p.m. on August 12 when he received a message on WhatsApp from Azam Ahmed, who was the chief correspondent in Kabul and Mexico and is on leave while writing a book.
“Is the government of Mexico willing to receive refugees from Afghanistan?” Asked Ahmed, who maintained a cordial relationship with Ebrard despite occasional and heated criticism from the Mexican government of his coverage. “We have people there, good people who are trying to get out.”
Ebrard responded quickly that it would not be possible. Then he said he thought about whether his secretariat could get around what would typically require “hours and hours” of processing and a cabinet meeting. “So I called the president and explained the situation,” he said.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed that “the situation was moving very quickly and the decision had to be made just as quickly,” Ebrard said in an interview this week.
“We saw this request, not as a foreign policy between Mexico and the United States,” he continued. “Rather, it’s a simple stand-off between someone who was a reporter in Kabul a few years ago and me, who was in a position to make some decisions.”
Around 6:30 pm Ebrard wrote to Ahmed that he was ready to give assurances – to a charter plane or another government – that he would accept a list of Afghans.
But the situation changed when the Taliban advanced on Kabul. The commercial airport closed and there was a period in which only US military flights took off. Qatar, where the US jets landed, usually only accepts Afghans if officials have assurances that they are heading to a third country.
Many of the details of the Afghans’ passage are kept confidential by the media in part for fear of flooding the narrow escape channels. The Times did not publicize its arrangement with Mexico. After it succeeded, Mexico extended the invitation to The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The Journal’s editor-in-chief, Matt Murray, said the newspaper planned to send its team, which is now in Qatar and Ukraine, to Mexico. A spokeswoman for the Post declined to comment on their plans.
Although the United States has increased its evacuation flights, the politicized and bureaucratic US immigration system has struggled to respond to the crisis. Processing the special visas that are available to journalists often requires them to spend at least a year in a third country, presumably to satisfy forces that warn that Muslim immigrants could be highly covert terrorists.
So governments around the world are taking over, as they did when Syrian journalists fled the country’s war, and most of them found a home in Europe. Many others went to Turkey, which has also been quick to provide a lifeline for Afghan journalists. Uzbekistan has also accepted refugees and offered itself as a short-term destination for Times journalists, said a senior editor of the Times.
Qatar, which had ties to the Taliban and hosted peace talks, has played a crucial role. Their ambassador in Kabul has led convoys to safety and the first wave of evacuees – including journalists – camped out in Doha. The British soldiers have also played a role in the evacuation of journalists, reported the Journal.
Mexico’s help to rescue US allies contradicts the image that the country usually has in the divisive immigration policy, but Ebrard did not want to expand on the irony. “Perhaps society in the United States is not aware of the Mexican tradition regarding refugees,” he said kindly.
The foreign minister added that he could not criticize the US withdrawal from Kabul. “It is not easy to organize the evacuation of thousands of people in a short period of time when you withdraw from a country,” he said.
The Mexican government is now seeking to extend similar protections to other journalists and women who are at risk in Afghanistan, Ebrard added.
“We are deeply grateful for the help and generosity of the Mexican government,” AG Sulzberger, editor, and president of The New York Times, said in an email. “Your help has been invaluable in putting our Afghan colleagues and their families out of harm’s way. We urge the entire international community to follow this example and continue to work for the brave Afghan journalists who are still at risk. “
Sulzberger said the support would not affect the Times’ coverage of Mexico and described it as a humanitarian issue, noting that “everyone who has assisted us understands that our coverage is totally and completely independent.”
Ebrard is a great figure in Mexican politics, a former head of government of Mexico City who is often voiced as a possible successor to López Obrador. He is also known for being more cordial to the press than the president, who often berates the media (including the Times) during his lengthy morning lectures. But the foreign minister said he did not expect any favors from the newsrooms that Mexico had attended.
“I think these newspapers have different positions on the government, very critical, and I suspect that this will not change,” he said.
The Mexican government is trying to stem a wave of migrants from Central America, so I asked how it could justify welcoming Afghans when pressuring Nicaraguans to stay home. Ebrard said the government’s actions were consistent with Mexico’s push “to make clear the difference between economic migrants and people seeking refuge and asylum.”
Ebrard said he did not anticipate much criticism in his country for the speed with which the Afghans were accepted. “The people of Mexico have a lot of sympathy now for the refugees from Afghanistan,” he said. And he indicated that on Wednesday he would be at the airport to meet in person with the newcomers and say: “Welcome to Mexico.”