The first group of New Zealand citizens, their families and "other visa holders" evacuated from Afghanistan will arrive in New Zealand this afternoon.
The first Kiwis – understood to have been a family – who had been trapped in Afghanistan since the Taliban dramatically took power last weekend were flown out of Kabul's chaotic airport on Friday.
Since then, others have managed to safely get out of Kabul airport – which is controlled inside by US troops and other allies, while outside is in the hands of the Taliban – on flights with partner nations.
It's not clear whether any former interpreters or other Afghan civilians who worked with the NZDF's war effort in Afghanistan are on the flights.
Today's arrivals were initially evacuated to the UAE with help from Australia's Defence Force before being transferred to an Air New Zealand commercial flight.
On arrival in Auckland this afternoon, they will spend two weeks in MIQ.
"By working alongside our partners, particularly Australia and the United Arab Emirates to whom we are very grateful, we're able to bring these New Zealanders safely home," Defence Minister Peeni Henare said.
"Their long journey to safety is nearly over, and I can only imagine the relief and joy they feel at being reunited with loved ones here in Aotearoa, once they have completed managed isolation and quarantine."
The effort to evacuate New Zealanders and Afghan nationals who hold visas to enter the country has involved multiple government agencies and hundreds of personnel in New Zealand and the Middle East.
A New Zealand Defence Force C-130 has been deployed to the region to help in the evacuation efforts alongside partner nations. It is understood to have arrived at an undisclosed base in the Middle East and is expected to fly into Kabul some time this week.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern today cited safety and privacy reasons for not revealing how many people were on the flight just now – but at the end of the deployment, she said, the numbers would be confirmed.
"The window to evacuate people out of Afghanistan is very limited," Ardern said.
"I know when the time presents itself New Zealanders will go out of their way to make those who have returned home today, feel at home."
Ardern said the window to evacuate people out of Afghanistan is "unfortunately very limited".
"Despite our ongoing efforts, we cannot guarantee we can assist all those who are seeking to evacuate.
"We are monitoring the situation and continue to work urgently with our international partners for the safe return of New Zealanders and those who have supported New Zealand."
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has been providing consular support to more than 200 New Zealanders in Afghanistan to help them onto flights in dangerous and perilous conditions.
Last Thursday, Kiwis registered on Safe Travel as being in Afghanistan were told to travel to Kabul airport, if they could do so safely, to await an outbound military flight.
They were told to brace themselves for "large and potentially volatile crowds" outside Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport.
MFAT has managed inquiries from Afghan nationals wanting assistance to leave the country.
It has been working urgently with Immigration New Zealand to secure visas for those who the New Zealand Government has determined as working alongside NZDF, New Zealand Police and aid missions, or who materially assisted in the Operation Burnham inquiry.
This afternoon, MFAT's advice to New Zealand citizens, permanent residents and New Zealand visa-holders and their immediate family was to leave Kabul airport and "shelter elsewhere until the situation can be stabilised but this advice is constantly under review".
"Our ability to assist individuals on the ground is very limited," an MFAT spokesman said.
"Access into Kabul airport remains extremely difficult and travel into Kabul from the provinces almost impossible.
"Given the security concerns and challenges at the gates of Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport in recent days, governments are working to establish a more orderly process at the airport gates."
Immigration New Zealand, meanwhile, says it has been working hard to facilitate visas for Afghan nationals who met the criteria to be part of the current rescue mission and to help screen them before arriving in New Zealand.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi has agreed changes to New Zealand's border entry immigration instructions to allow them entry, acting Deputy Head of Immigration Stephen Vaughan said this afternoon.
"This means that individuals who were in Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, and hold a valid temporary or resident visa are exempt from the border restrictions and may enter New Zealand," he said.
"INZ has been working closely with MIQ and will be providing resettlement support similar to what is provided for refugees who come to New Zealand through the Refugee Quota."