Hundreds of Afghans evacuated to Spanish air base in operation lauded by EU leaders

The installations at Torrejón de Ardoz in Madrid were visited over the weekend by the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council

A group of Afghan evacuees arrives at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base in Madrid.
A group of Afghan evacuees arrives at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base in Madrid.Iñaki Gómez/Ministerio de Defens

Spain has become a global reference point for the management of the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, a country that has been left in chaos since the withdrawal of United States’ troops, the advance of the Taliban and the collapse of the government. In response to the crisis, and in less than 24 hours, the Spanish authorities last week set up a European reception center for Afghans fleeing the country at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base in Madrid.

On Sunday, 177 people arrived from Kabul at the base on two of the A400 aircraft the Spanish government is using for the operation. Of these, 110 were aid workers and the rest Afghans that had worked for the US. On Saturday, another Spanish transport evacuated 110 people, which included 64 Afghans who had worked with Washington.

Until now, five flights sent by Spain to Afghanistan have managed to rescue 445 Afghans and five Spaniards. SInce Thursday, the base at Torrejón has also received three flights from the European Union’s External Action Service carrying 110 people.

According to Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles, the camp has become “the envy” of Spain’s NATO allies. The minister proposed that those in Kabul who do not have a travel document or are trying to reach the airport “shout ‘Spain,’ or carry the [Spanish] flag or something red to be able to enter.”

A sign of the interest that the operation at Torrejón de Ardoz has sparked was reflected by a visit made on Friday by David Carlson, defense attaché at the United States embassy in Madrid, in order to see the reception and accommodation system for the Afghan asylum seekers. Representatives from the embassy had requested the collaboration of the Spanish government for the evacuation process and emergency processing of refugees, according to sources from the Spanish government.

At the weekend, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and US President Joe Biden agreed that Spain would house Afghans who had worked with Washington at the Spanish-American bases of Rota in Cádiz and Morón de la Frontera in Seville, until they can be transferred to other countries.

On Saturday, the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, also visited the air base at Torrejón de Ardoz. There they expressed their gratitude to Prime Minister Sánchez for the operation to take in the Afghan refugees who have worked for the European Institutions.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaking at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base on Saturday.

“In the times of need, Spain has shown humanity, and Spain has proven a great sense of solidarity,” said Von der Leyen after a visit to the base, which is located around 30 kilometers from the Spanish capital. “So Spain is here an example for the European soul at its best, and I really want to thank you,” she said, in reference to the prime minister, before going on to thank others involved in the operation.

The operation at Torrejón de Ardoz is divided into three areas. In the first they are given coronavirus tests – so far there have been no cases. In the second, staff from the Migration department coordinates with the Red Cross. And in the third, the Afghans are interviewed and the bureaucratic process begins to process them in Spain or another country. The United States is likely to use the same model at Rota and Morón, according to sources consulted by EL PAÍS.

“The Torrejón base has become a humanitarian lifeline until the people rescued can travel to the different countries for whom they have worked,” the minister for the prime minister, Félix Bolaños, stated.

As well as the working group that is supervising the repatriation of the Spanish contingent, a technical team overseen by Bolaños is meeting every day in the morning. The group is supervising the situation and the actions that are taking place at the Torrejón base and Kabul airport, and supervising the latest arrivals. The team is made up of around 35 people from the Defense, Foreign, Interior, Migration and Health ministries.

A total of 110 military personnel from Spain are taking part in the evacuation plan. What’s more, the Foreign Ministry has sent more than 120 staff to participate. A further two diplomatic staff have been sent to Kabul to strengthen the operation there – the ambassador, Gabriel Ferrán, was already present along with another diplomat.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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