The fall of Kabul after a lightning offensive by the Taliban in Afghanistan has prompted a logistical challenge in Spain. The Air Force and the UME military emergency unit has set up a camp at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base in Madrid that can hold up to 800 people. The government of Socialist Party (PSOE) Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has established the base as the center of operations for Afghan nationals who previously worked for the European Union (EU) and who will later be moved to other member state countries.
So far, there are 89 people on the base who have been evacuated from Kabul, among them five Spaniards. They arrived in the early hours of Thursday on an A400M aircraft sent by the Spanish government as well as an Italian plane that forms part of the EU’s Foreign Service. Spain is working with the latter organization to serve as an entry point for the distribution of Afghan collaborators among the bloc’s member states.
The camp, which has been set up next to the runway and includes a canteen for 200 people, showers and restrooms, has different areas for men, women and children. The evacuees are being attended to by professionals from the Secretary of State for Migration as well as NGOs. For the minors, there is a play area and a baby-feeding area, as well as a medical and psychological attention service.
As well as food and drink, the arrivals are being supplied face masks and other hygiene items. One of the 32 minors who arrived this morning has been taken to the Gregorio Marañon Hospital after suffering from diarrhea. All of the people evacuated to Torrejón have so far tested negative for coronavirus via antigen tests.
The maximum time that the asylum seekers spend in Torrejón before being processed by the Spanish or EU countries’ systems is expected to be 72 hours, according to government services. After their coronavirus tests, the arrivals are being identified by the National Police, to whom they must express their interest in seeking international protection.
Quiero agradecer la labor de @UMEgob @CruzRojaEsp que han trabajado sin parar para habilitar este dispositivo de primera acogida para las personas evacuadas de Afganistán. Gracias también a las entidades que ayudarán a acompañarles en su nueva vida en nuestro sistema de acogida pic.twitter.com/ErR1jWO4ZF— José Luis Escrivá (@joseluisescriva) August 18, 2021
Spain’s Inclusion, Social Security and Migration Minister José Luis Escrivá was there to receive the arrivals this morning, along with Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares. The former explained today that the evacuees will be informed of the international protection procedures before they are distributed among different EU countries.
In Spain, the regions of Extremadura, Murcia, Catalonia and the Basque Country, as well as the city of Barcelona, have expressed their willingness to take in some of these refugees, but Escrivá explained that the state network, in theory, has the “sufficient resources” to handle the influx. He did not, however, rule out falling back on the regions and cities that have offered their help with the logistical tasks ahead. The system currently counts on around 3,000 free spaces across the country.
On the Italian flight that arrived in Spain this morning, after making a stop in Rome, there were 36 Afghans who had previously worked with EU institutions. The government reported that they included five families who will be taken in by Denmark, Germany, Poland and Lithuania. Prime Minister Sánchez had offered to the EU that Spain would “temporarily” take in these staff before they are sent to other member states.
The Spanish government, which is run by a coalition of the PSOE and junior partner Unidas Podemos, has stated that the first phase of the repatriation effort, which involved evacuating all the Spanish nationals who are not essential for the operation, is complete. At 1.30pm CET, Sánchez was due to hold a videoconference with the foreign, defense, interior and migration ministers.
One of the two A400M aircraft sent by Spain for the evacuation is due to fly from Dubai to Kabul today, Thursday. The aim is to collect more than the 53 people who were flown in to Madrid this morning. If all goes to plan, another A400M medical plane will also be sent to the Afghan capital. A third could also be sent to Dubai in the coming hours.
The Spanish government is, however, acting with extreme caution, and sources from the executive have explained that no planes will be sent to Afghanistan until the highest number of priority personnel are safe within the airport in Kabul.
“The planes can only be [in the airport] the time that is necessary for them to immediately return to Dubai,” the same sources explained.
The current objective is to evacuate the Afghans who have worked with the Spanish authorities in recent years, along with their families, as well as human-rights activists.
The government is planning to use the Air Europa airline from Dubai should a large number of people be successfully evacuated from the mousetrap that Afghanistan has become due to the Taliban advance.
English version by Simon Hunter.