Last summer we all saw the dramatic images of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the people’s desperation. Since then, Afghanistan has almost disappeared from the headlines of the German media. Yet it would be a mistake to think that the crisis is behind us. For the situation on the ground has not calmed down or improved, on the contrary.
Many people live in constant fear. That goes particularly for those who worked with us for a better future for Afghanistan, who believed in and lived for that vision. The situation is most difficult for women and girls, who are particularly at risk. We have a responsibility towards these people, and we will not abandon them.
Yet more than 15,000 people whom we firmly promised to take in still remain in Afghanistan. One is the young member of an international NGO who carried out human rights education and also gender equality projects in northern Afghanistan. After seizing power, the Taliban searched her home town for her. She is now in hiding and waiting to find a way to Germany. One is the chairman of an Afghan human rights organisation which was one of the first organisations in Afghanistan to work to tackle extremism.
There are also 135 Germans still in the country whose individual circumstances mean they have not yet left. Today, on the brink of the new year, it is important to me to say to all of them that they are not forgotten. We will not relax our efforts but are working hard to bring them to safety.
On top of this, before our eyes Afghanistan is heading towards the largest humanitarian disaster of our times. Large parts of the economy have collapsed and many people are already suffering from hunger. In their desperation, families are selling their daughters to buy food. More than half of Afghanistan’s population, more than 24 million people, will need humanitarian assistance this winter in order to survive.
Terrorist organisations such as Islamic State have already begun to take advantage of people’s despair and hopelessness by recruiting new members. And repeatedly reports are reaching us of serious human rights violations, despite all the assurances from the Taliban.
As the new Federal Government we are determined not to look away now but to act, and act quickly. We have agreed on an action plan with initial concrete steps which we intend to implement immediately.
- We will work to learn the lessons from our engagement in Afghanistan to date, both between ministries and with the German Bundestag. We have started to analyse what needs to be improved in order to provide the people in the country with more rapid and more targeted assistance. Since the Taliban seized power, Germany has so far helped around 10,000 people to leave Afghanistan. Some 5300 of them left as part of the military evacuation and just under 5000 in phase 2. We were able to fly 674 out via Qatar by using our own charter flights, while Qatar brought 430 people to safety on our behalf on its own flights. We were also able to fly 3360 people to Germany from Islamabad. That was no small feat, and I offer my sincere thanks to all those who were involved. One major obstacle remains: the insistence by the Taliban that all those leaving the country must have a passport and the fact that even civilian flights are only possible with the approval of the Taliban and the support of regional partners. Yet we can also improve our own processes to enable more flights to take off. We will actively draw on the experiences of civil society and enterprises, which have already played a key role in the evacuations.
- We will accelerate the departure from Afghanistan, because each day counts, particularly for the women and girls under threat. To this end we want to dovetail our work more closely with that of civil society, where many volunteers in our country have achieved remarkable things in recent months. We want to work with rather than against one another. We will establish regular opportunities for dialogue in order to better coordinate our activities and pool our resources. Furthermore, we will make a renewed attempt within the framework of the talks with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to open up additional routes out of Afghanistan. I intend to do what I can myself to achieve this – and likewise to maintain our successful cooperation with Pakistan and Qatar.
- We will eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to facilitate entry and travel to Germany for Afghan nationals who are particularly at risk. I am working closely with the Interior Minister to this end. In order not to waste more precious months and to first maintain and accelerate transit to countries such as Qatar, we will remove obstacles in the current visa process. In certain cases this could involve digital data collection and security assessment prior to departure and the issuing of visas in transit countries or upon arrival in Germany. We are also discussing how to reduce the red tape for all travel routes out of Afghanistan. Our goal must be to establish not one but many humanitarian airlifts from Afghanistan to Germany. We will be more open in our approach to defining the immediate family of people with approval for admission and with regard to cases of hardship and keep the reality of people’s lives in focus. Particularly in view of the special situation of vulnerable women and girls, who have absolute priority for us, and of people with family ties in Germany, we will establish a humanitarian admission programme in the spirit of the coalition agreement. We will involve civil society in this from the outset. We also want to work together to simplify and accelerate family reunification. It is not acceptable for families to have to live apart from one another for years on end.
- The massive expansion of humanitarian assistance has absolute priority in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster of barely imaginable proportions. We have already provided 600 million euro in humanitarian assistance, making us the largest humanitarian donor. It is vital that our funds are also available over the winter months, when cold and starvation loom. And I will soon speak to the German Bundestag and appeal for us to make available the assistance necessary to ensure people’s survival also in the coming year. Our assistance will be provided solely via the UN and other independent organisations to ensure that it gets through to where it is most needed – and does not fall into the hands of the Taliban. A particular focus is being placed on projects such as those run by Save the Children, which are providing medical care for children, pregnant women and young mothers in Balkh and Kandahar provinces. With our support, the Johanniter Unfallhilfe emergency response organisation is operating mobile clinics for people in need in Kabul. And we are supporting the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service in order to ensure that food and medicines reach all corners of the country. We are working hard to ensure that urgently needed assistance is not blocked by international sanctions. I held intensive talks on this issue at the G7 meeting. It is good that yesterday the UN Security Council and the United States agreed on clear exemptions for humanitarian assistance. We have offered to participate in a monitoring mechanism to prevent humanitarian funds from lining the pockets of the Taliban.
- In order to be able to better help people in Afghanistan in this disastrous situation, conduct evacuations more effectively and undertake a more accurate and direct assessment of the situation, we intend to be present and operational in the country again next year and have our own personnel in Kabul – in close coordination with our European and international partners. To put it plainly: that does not mean that we give political legitimacy, let alone recognition, to the Taliban regime. We have an obligation to the people in Afghanistan – not to the Taliban.
Women and girls are suffering particularly under Taliban rule. We will therefore give them special attention in all our work. We have agreed with the Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development to contribute to teachers’ salaries to enable girls to continue to attend school in the same way as boys. This is conditional on girls being allowed to learn and women being permitted to teach, and on the retention of the existing curricula. To this end we are in close contact with our international partners and the countries in the region. We will create additional scholarships for female Afghan students to study in the region via the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative, thereby paving the way for young Afghan women to embark on a new life through education. In order to protect women in Afghanistan more effectively from gender-specific violence, we will work to expand advice centres and women's refuges in cooperation with UN Women and help to ensure that the voice of women's rights activists is heard in high-level dialogue formats.
- We see the need of Afghanistan’s civil society and will strive to ensure that free spaces are protected. We will create the opportunity for human rights defenders and media professionals forced to leave Afghanistan to continue their work from Germany and other countries through protection and funding programmes. We are likewise implementing concrete projects to endeavour to support the unspeakably brave women and men who have decided to continue their work on the ground. In Germany we are making available scholarships specifically for journalists and developing projects to maintain an open media landscape in Afghanistan.
None of this will be easy, and much will take longer than we would like. In many areas we are having to build up our engagement again almost from nothing. But we have patience, the clear will to achieve what we set out to do and now also an initial action plan outlining concrete steps for the coming months. Many thanks to all those who are supporting us on this path.