A group of Afghans who worked for The New York Times, along with their families, landed safely early Wednesday – not in New York or Washington, but at Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport.
The arrival of the 24 families was the latest stage in a heartbreaking escape from Kabul. And Mexico’s role in rescuing reporters from The Times and, if all goes according to plan, The Wall Street Journal offers a disorienting glimpse into the state of the US government as two of the country’s most powerful news agencies frantically searched help away from Washington.
Mexican authorities, unlike their counterparts in the United States, managed to cut red tape in their immigration system to quickly provide documents which, in turn, allowed Afghans to fly from the besieged airport in Kabul. in Doha, Qatar. The documents promised Afghans would receive temporary humanitarian protection in Mexico while they explored other options in the United States or elsewhere.
“We are currently engaged in a foreign policy promoting freedom of expression, freedoms and feminist values,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in a telephone interview. Citing a national tradition of welcoming everyone from 19th century Cuban independence leader José Martí to German Jews and South Americans fleeing coups, he said Mexico has opened its doors to Afghan journalists ” in order to protect them and to be consistent with this policy. . “
Mr Ebrard added, explaining the country’s rapid work, “We did not have time to have the normal official channels.”
The path of Afghan journalists and their families to Mexico was as arbitrary, personal and tenuous as anything else in the frantic and scattered evacuation of Kabul. Mr Ebrard was at home around 5 p.m. on August 12, when he received a message on WhatsApp from Azam Ahmed, the Times’ former chief of offices in Kabul and Mexico, who is on leave.
“Is the Mexican government ready to welcome Afghan refugees? asked Mr. Ahmed, who maintained a cordial relationship with Mr. Ebrard despite the sometimes sharp criticism of the Mexican government against his cover. “We have people there, good people, trying to get out.”
Mr. Ebrard quickly replied that it would not be possible. Then, he said, he wondered if his ministry could get around what would typically be “hours and hours” of process and a cabinet meeting. “And so I called the president and explained the situation to him,” he said.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed that “the situation is changing very quickly and the decision should be taken at the same speed,” Ebrard said in an interview this week.
“We saw this request not as a foreign policy between Mexico and the United States,” he continued. “Instead, it’s a common position between someone who was a New York Times reporter in Kabul several years ago and myself, who was in a position to make certain decisions.”
Mr. Ebrard responded to Mr. Ahmed at around 6:30 p.m. to say that Mexico was ready to help by providing assurance – to a chartered airline or other government – that it would accept a list of Afghans.
However, as the Taliban moved closer to Kabul, the situation changed. The commercial airport closed, and for a time only US military flights would depart. Qatar, where the US jets landed, would generally only accept Afghans if those responsible could be assured they would go to a third country.
Many details of the Afghan passage are being kept confidential by news organizations, in part for fear of flooding the narrow escape channels. The Times did not promote its deal with Mexico. After being reached, Mexico extended its invitation to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Journal editor Matt Murray said the newspaper planned to send his team, currently in Qatar and Ukraine, Mexico. A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment on her plans.
As the United States has stepped up its evacuation flights, the politicized and bureaucratic American immigration system has struggled to cope with the crisis. The treatment of special visas made available to journalists often requires them to spend at least a year in a third country, presumably to satisfy forces warning that Muslim immigrants may be terrorists working under extremely deep cover.
So governments around the world are stepping in, as they did when Syrian journalists fled that country’s war – most of them to find homes in Europe. Many more traveled to Turkey, which was also quick to provide lifelines for Afghan journalists. Uzbekistan has also accepted refugees and offered itself as a short-term destination for The Times reporters, a Times editor said.
Qatar, which has maintained ties with the Taliban and hosted peace talks, played the central role. Its ambassador in Kabul reportedly led convoys to safety, and the first wave of evacuees – including journalists – bivouacked in Doha. British soldiers also played a role in the evacuation of journalists, The Journal reported.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
Mexico’s help to rescue U.S. allies flies in the face of the country’s usual image in the immigration policy that divides the United States, but Mr. Ebrard declined to dwell on the ‘irony. “Maybe society in the United States is unaware of the Mexican tradition of refugees,” he said quietly.
The foreign minister added that he could not blame 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 to women who are at risk in Afghanistan, Ebrard added.
“We are deeply grateful for the help and generosity of the government of Mexico,” AG Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, said in an email. “Their 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 suit and continue to work on behalf of the many courageous Afghan journalists who remain at risk.
Many Afghan journalists still cannot enter the airport, including most of the US government-operated Voice of America and Radio Azadi staff, a US official said.
Mr Sulzberger said the aid would not affect The Times’ coverage of Mexico, describing it as a humanitarian issue and noting that “everyone who helped us understands that our coverage is totally and completely independent.”
Mr. Ebrard is a great figure in Mexican politics, a former mayor of Mexico City who is often mentioned as a possible successor to President Obrador. He is also known for lighter contact with the press than the president, who often castigates news outlets (including the Times) during lengthy press conferences. But the foreign minister said he expected no favors from the newsrooms that Mexico had helped.
“I think these newspapers have different positions on the government, very critical positions, and I suspect that will not change,” he said.
The Mexican government is trying to stem a wave of migrants from Central America, and I asked how it could justify admitting Afghans while urging Nicaraguans to stay at home. Mr. Ebrard said the government’s actions were consistent with Mexican pressure “to clearly differentiate between economic migrants and people seeking refuge and asylum,” he said.
Mr Ebrard said he did not expect much internal criticism for moving quickly to accept the Afghans. “People in Mexico are very sympathetic to the refugees right now in Afghanistan,” he said. And he said he would be at the airport on Wednesday morning to meet the Afghans himself and say, “Welcome to Mexico.