A group of Afghans working for The New York Times, along with their families, landed safely early Wednesday – not in New York or Washington, but at Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City.
The arrival of the 24 families was the latest stop in a shocking flight from Kabul. And Mexico’s role in rescuing journalists from The Times and, if all goes as planned, The Wall Street Journal provides a disorienting glimpse into the state of the US government as two of the country’s most powerful news organizations frantically sought help far from Washington.
Mexican officials, unlike their US counterparts, were able to cut through the bureaucracy of their immigration system to quickly obtain documents, which in turn allowed Afghans to fly from Kabul’s combat airport to Doha, Qatar. The documents promised that the Afghans would receive temporary humanitarian protection in Mexico while exploring further options in the United States or elsewhere.
“We are right now committed to a foreign policy that promotes freedom of expression, liberties and feminist values,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in a telephone interview. Referring to a national tradition of welcoming everyone from 19th-century Cuban independence leader José Martí to German Jews and South Americans fleeing the coup, he said Mexico had opened its doors to Afghan journalists “to protect them and comply with this policy. “
Mr. Ebrard added and explained 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 flimsy as anything else in the hectic and scattered evacuation of Kabul. Mr. Ebrard was home around noon.
“Is the Mexican government willing to receive refugees from Afghanistan?” asked Mr Ahmed, who maintained a cordial relationship with Mr Ebrard despite occasionally heated Mexican government criticism of his coverage. “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 department 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,” he said.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed that “the situation was moving very fast and the decision had to be made at the same speed,” Mr Ebrard said in an interview this week.
“We did not see this request as foreign policy between Mexico and the United States,” he continued. “Instead, it is a common position between someone who was a New York Times reporter in Kabul several years ago and myself who was able to make some decisions.”
Mr. Ebrard wrote back to Mr. Ahmed around noon. 18:30 to say that Mexico was ready to help by giving assurances – to a charter airline or another government – that it would accept a list of Afghans.
However, when the Taliban closed in on Kabul, the situation changed. The commercial airport closed down, and for a time, only U.S. military flights would depart. Qatar, where the American jets landed, would normally only accept Afghans if officials there could be sure they would move to a third country.
Afghanistan under Taliban rule
With the departure of the U.S. military on August 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under Taliban control. There is widespread fear of the future across the country.
Many of the details of the Afghans’ passage are 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 that, Mexico extended its invitation to The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The editor-in-chief of The Journal, Matt Murray, said the newspaper planned to send its team, now in Qatar and Ukraine, on to Mexico. A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment on their plans.
While the United States has stepped up its evacuation flights, the politicized and bureaucratic American immigration system has struggled to face the crisis. Processing the special visas available to journalists often requires them to spend at least a year in a third country, presumably to satisfy the forces that warn 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 the country’s war – most of them to find their way home to Europe. Many others went to Turkey, which has also struggled to provide lifelines to Afghan journalists. Uzbekistan has also welcomed refugees and offered itself as a short-term destination for Times journalists, a senior Times editor said.
Qatar, which maintained ties with the Taliban and hosted peace talks, has played a key role. Its ambassador to Kabul has reportedly led convoys to safety, and the first wave of evacuees – including journalists – bivouaced in Doha. British soldiers also played a role in the evacuation of journalists, The Journal reported.
Understand the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan
Who is the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including whipping, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origins and their record as rulers.
Mexico’s help to rescue American allies cuts against the usual image of the country in America’s divisive immigration policy, but Mr Ebrard refused to dwell on the irony. “Perhaps society in the United States is not aware of the Mexican tradition regarding refugees,” he said mildly.
The Secretary of State added that he could not be mistaken for the US withdrawal from Kabul. “It is not easy to organize the evacuation of thousands of people in a short time when withdrawing from some country,” he said.
The Mexican government is now seeking to extend similar protection to other journalists and women at risk in Afghanistan, Mr. Ebrard.
“We are deeply grateful for the help and generosity of the Mexican government,” AG Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, said in an email. “Their help has been invaluable in getting our Afghan colleagues and their families out of danger. We urge the entire international community to follow this example and continue the work on behalf of the many brave Afghan journalists who are still in danger.”
Many Afghan journalists are still unable to get into the airport – including most of the staff on the US government-run Voice of America and Radio Azadi, a US official said.
Mr. Sulzberger said the aid would not affect The Times’ coverage of Mexico, describing it as a humanitarian issue, noting that “everyone who has helped us understands that our coverage is completely and utterly independent.”
Mr. Ebrard is a major figure in Mexican politics, a former Mexico City mayor often mentioned as a possible successor to President Obrador. He is also known for a lighter touch with the press than the president, who often throws news organizations (including The Times) at long press conferences. But the foreign minister said he did not expect any services from the editorial staff that Mexico had helped.
“I think these newspapers have different views on the government, very critical, and I suppose this 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 forcing Nicaraguans to stay home. Mr. Ebrard said the government’s actions were in line with the Mexican push “to clarify the difference between economic migrants and the people seeking refuge and asylum,” he said.
Mr. Ebrard said he did not expect much domestic criticism for moving quickly to accept Afghans. “The people of Mexico are very sympathetic to refugees right now in Afghanistan,” he said. And he said he would be at the airport Wednesday morning to meet the Afghans themselves and say, “Welcome to Mexico.”