A first group of 121 evacuees from Afghanistan arrived early Friday in Albania, after the country agreed to temporarily house at-risk Afghan nationals at the request of the United States.
More are expected to go to the Western Balkan country, but the timing is uncertain because of the chaos and evolving situation at the Kabul airport, as the United States and other countries race to get Americans and others out of the country ahead of an Tuesday deadline for complete withdrawal, amid the threat of more terror attacks.
Officials in Albania said the first group of 121 was made up of civil society activists and others, including children and 11 babies. The flight made one stop in Tbilisi, Georgia, then departed for Albania, arriving at the country’s main airport in Tirana at 3 a.m. local time.
They were being sheltered temporarily in three hotels near the coastal town of Durrës, about 38 kilometers (23.5 miles) from Tirana.
“We have prepared for everything, including processing documentation and registration, health checks, sanitary packages, food, transportation and of course safety,” said Foreign Minister Olta Xhaçka, who welcomed the group at the airport.
U.S. Ambassador to Albania Yuri Kim was also present, thanking Albania for the hospitality.
Albania was one of the first countries to agree to take in at-risk Afghans, initially saying that it would house hundreds of them, later putting that figure at up to 4,000. All this past week, the flights from Kabul kept being scheduled and canceled because of the chaos at the airport.
“I feel relieved that finally the first flight was able to make it, bringing the first Afghan contingent, including, men, women and children. It is truly an emotional moment, because each man, woman, child that you see here is a life saved from the horror of war,” Xhaçka said.
A moral imperative
In addition to Albania, fellow NATO member North Macedonia and Kosovo have agreed to take in at-risk Afghans.
Albania and Kosovo, noting their own people's plights, see helping with the Afghan evacuees as a moral imperative. Thirty years ago, thousands of Albanians fled to Western Europe after the fall of communism to build a better life.
“It’s about who we are. It’s about also being a member of NATO and feeling the responsibility to act as part of NATO,” Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama said in an interview with CNN, urging other wealthier fellow NATO members to do more.
During the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, 700,000 people from Kosovo were displaced and became refugees. President Vjosa Osmani, confirming the U.S. request, recalled that experience in a tweet early last week.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and other countries that have expressed willingness to welcome displaced Afghans.
“We deeply appreciate the support they have offered and are proud to partner with them in our shared support of the Afghan people,” he said in a statement last week.
David Phillips, director of the Peace-building and Rights Program at Columbia University, said it was “excellent that the countries of the Western Balkans are prepared to lend a hand.”
“That's what the United States would expect from a friend and an ally, and I compliment those countries for extending assistance to the Afghans during their moments of tremendous need,” he told VOA.
While the length of the Afghan evacuees' stay in these countries remains to be seen, Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a global affairs think tank, told VOA the priority is to move them out of Afghanistan.
"Right now, I think the key is to get them to a place where they are safe to begin the paperwork, the background checks, other necessary steps to process to them for refugee status and for ultimate resettlement,” he said, adding that the Biden administration “is very appreciative for any country that is willing to help out.”
Ilirian Agolli contributed to this report.