Can we do more? Yes, says government MP Phillip Thompson
By Kate Banville
Anxious Afghan interpreters and other locally engaged employees who assisted Australian forces in the Afghanistan war continue to wait for their humanitarian visa applications to be processed in the hope that they will be granted safe haven in Australia.
But as the war-ravaged country edges closer to civil war, Australian Defence Force veterans who served in Afghanistan accuse Defence Minister Peter Dutton of ignoring their pleas to fast-track the evacuation of Afghan interpreters and other workers.
The Taliban’s escalating sweeping offensive has claimed six regional capitals in a matter of days and is now operating in strategic strongholds in northern Afghanistan not held prior to foreign forces engagement.
International calls for a ceasefire have been rejected as the Taliban continues to fight for control of Afghanistan.
If the fragile Afghan government, police forces and Afghanistan National Army were to be overrun, and the national capital Kabul taken by the Taliban, Australia and other nations would be forced to engage in more formal and diplomatic communication with the Taliban who now hold more than half of the country's territory.
Taliban violence has led to more than 1000 civilians killed in the past month.
The United Nations reported at least 27 children killed and more than 130 injured in just three days amid fierce fighting between the Taliban and the government.
The head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, has appealed for the Security Council to act to avert a “catastrophe”, noting that the Taliban takeover is “reminiscent of the Syrian and Balkan wars”.
“This is a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not so distant past. To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties,” Lyons says.
The fall of regional strongholds to the Taliban is taking place just weeks before US forces complete a total withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11 – the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, the catalyst for the war in Afghanistan.
‘Feels like a kick in the guts’
Townsville-based federal LNP MP Phillip Thompson (pictured while in Afghanistan) suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was blown up by an improvised explosive device while deployed in Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment.
He has close friends who were either killed or injured in combat. Others succumbed to the mental horror of war back home.
Thompson says it has been hard for him and his mates to watch the violence in Afghanistan unfold.
“It's tough to see where we've fought and lost soldiers be taken back by the Taliban. It does
feel like a kick in the guts,” he says.
“It’s tough to see when it flips like that and my mates and I have pretty strong views on it and I have echoed that around parliament. I do have concerns for their [Afghanistan’s] stability into the future.”
Thompson has also voiced his concerns for Afghan interpreters that worked in support of Australia’s campaign in Afghanistan, conceding more could be done to assist them.
“My view is that we should be helping people that helped us,” he says.
“But I also know and recognise that there needs to be a robust process to ensure that we're bringing people here that have our values and are good people, but can it be done quicker? Yes it can. Should it be done quicker? Yes again.”
Veterans forced to carry the burden
Former Army captain Jason Scanes deployed to Afghanistan as an intelligence adviser before founding the advocacy group Forsaken Fighters after trying to assist his own interpreter through the visa application process.
He says Australian veterans have been forced to carry the burden of assisting those that helped to keep them alive in the warzone.
During his employment with Australians between 2010 and 2014, Scanes’ interpreter, known as Hassan, was given the highest level of security clearance permitted for translators, allowing him to live on-base alongside soldiers.
In 2013, Hassan was certified by the Australian government as being “someone who has legitimate fear for his safety as a direct result of his former employment as an interpreter for coalition forces”.
This meant Hassan was eligible for a humanitarian visa under a special program that offers resettlement to locally engaged Afghan employees but his application was denied by then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. That decision was quashed as unlawful in a landmark ruling by the Federal Court in May 2020.
The decision on Hassan’s future now rests with current Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews. (Dutton is now the Defence Minister.)
Scanes, an unsuccessful Labor candidate in the 2019 federal election, has accused the Morrison government of “playing politics” with the issue after requests to meet with relevant ministers were rejected.
Scanes believes the fact that Afghan interpreters and other local employees are still waiting for their humanitarian visa applications to be processed shows that Australia “didn't have an evacuation plan in place” and that “the Afghan interpreters were a bit of an afterthought”.
Visa program ‘seems tokenistic’
“The government was struggling to know what our mission was in Afghanistan,” Scanes says.
“We knew the initial part of the mission was to disrupt those complex networks and insurgent groups and kill or capture [Osama] bin Laden but I don't think they had a plan to stay as long as they did and things got blurred and confused throughout that and I don’t think they had an exit strategy.
“The [humanitarian visa] policy almost seems tokenistic given the fact that we're still just going to continue to process applications as we've always done. I've got many, many applications that have been sitting there for years.”
Figures provided by Home Affairs outline a much lower caseload than some critics have suggested.
“The department has less than 50 applications currently on-hand and are processing them as quickly as possible,” a departmental spokesman says, adding that the humanitarian visa program is a “high priority” for the government.
“More than 300 people granted under the Afghan LEE [locally engaged employee] program in 2021 have already commenced their settlement journey in Australia,” the spokesman says.
“The safety and security of Australia is an absolute priority. Applicants must meet the visa criteria and satisfy public interest criteria for character, security and health.”
Since 2013, over 1700 Afghan LEEs and eligible family members have been granted visas, according to the spokesman.
Visa applicants must first seek certification by the department they worked for to be eligible to apply for a visa. This part of the process is handled by the Home Affairs department to approve or deny, before the Immigration department arranges medical certification and travel arrangements for approved applicants.
At a press conference on July 18, when asked if delayed processing could result in Taliban doing the vetting by killing Afghans who worked for Australia, Dutton told reporters not to “listen to a narrative” that Australia was not providing support to interpreters.
“We aren't taking a blanket yes [approach] because there's some people that have been proposed that will pose a security threat to our country,” Dutton said.
“There might be more [Afghan employees] than we can help through the refugee and humanitarian program and if we need to airlift people we will do that. We've already looked at those contingencies. If people can come commercially and that's available well that might be the option for them. If we need to airlift people we will.”
Delays are ‘unconscionable’
While other countries have fast-tracked applications, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne told Senate estimates in June that Afghan claims would follow the usual process.
Former military lawyer Glenn Kolomeitz, a former Army major who served in Afghanistan, has been acting on behalf of locally engaged Afghans.
He says the government’s “resistance to transparency” is cause for alarm.
“We have not had any responses to date from the DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] or Defence LEE programs about our individual clients’ cases,” he says.
“This resistance is unconscionable and because the LEE programs are outside the broader migration programs it's difficult to say [if the government’s handling] is expressly illegal but it’s certainly not consistent with model litigant obligations and they're certainly inequitable and unfair to these applicants.
“The number by Home Affairs of less than 50 applications leaves more questions than it does answers.
“Stoppages are clearly at the DFAT and Defence levels of the LEE programs because we know that hundreds of people are applying and attempting to apply.”
Kolomeitz says his Canberra law firm, GAP Veteran and Legal Services, represents 140 Afghan security guards and is monitoring the visa applications of more than 100 interpreters.
Kate Banville is a Townsville-based journalist. A seven-year Army veteran, she has been a defence reporter for the Townsville Bulletin and has also worked at WIN News in Townsville and ABC Gold Coast. Connect with her on Twitter: @katebanville