Dozens of Afghan nationals who are partners of Australians fear being left behind in Afghanistan, as they seek urgent help to secure seats on military-run evacuation flights from Taliban-controlled Kabul.
After an extra 40 Australian Defence Force personnel were dropped into Kabul airport to help with security and logistics, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the Australian government would “urgently” ramp up evacuation flights in the coming days “because we are taking nothing for granted”.
The foreign affairs department on Thursday urged Australian citizens and permanent residents – along with other countries’ nationals who have already been granted Australian visas – to travel to the airport if safe to do so “to wait for a planned evacuation flight”.
That reversed advice issued earlier this week for Australians to delay travelling to the airport given the potential danger posed by passing through Taliban-controlled checkpoints.
But partners of Australian citizens and permanent residents who have been waiting for their partner visa applications to be processed are worried.
The Guardian has spoken with a Perth-based man, an Australian citizen, whose partner has been studying in Kabul. They applied in March 2019 for her to receive a partner visa.
The man said his partner – who is not being named for safety reasons – had an appointment for a visa-related medical check at the International Organization for Migration centre in Kabul on Monday, the day after the Taliban declared it had seized control of the capital city.
“She went there to do the medical check, the medical centre was closed and there was fighting between police and Taliban. It is so dangerous.”
He said his partner was trying to get to Kabul airport on Thursday but he feared for her safety. “Now I don’t know what to do,” he said.
Late on Thursday he contacted the Guardian again to say he had received good news: the visa had finally been approved.
The Greens wrote to the foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, on Thursday to raise the cases of dozens of Afghan partners awaiting visas who were worried their lives may be at risk if they cannot leave the country.
“Within the last 48 hours, 68 couples have written to us in complete desperation outlining that they have been unable to get onto the Dfat evacuation lists or board evacuation flights as their partner visas have not been processed as yet,” the letter to the ministers said.
In some of these cases, the Australian citizen or permanent resident was currently in Australia, and in other cases, they were in Afghanistan with their partners.
“In addition, we understand that in some cases where the couples are together in Afghanistan, the Australian citizen/permanent resident has been offered a spot on an evacuation flight but their partners have not,” the letter said.
“This obviously presents these couples with an impossible choice between abandoning their partner to ensure their own personal safety or remaining with their partner in Afghanistan to face an uncertain future.”
The Greens were calling on the government to immediately provide bridging visas to all partners of Australians currently in Afghanistan “to enable them to be evacuated and brought to Australia while their substantive partner visas are processed”.
Nick McKim, the party’s spokesperson on immigration and citizenship, said people were “stranded in Afghanistan because of the Australian government’s abject failure to process their visa applications in a timely way”.
He offered to provide the government with a list of cases to assist people securing places on evacuation flights.
“It’s outrageous that some have been waiting for over two years to have their visa applications processed,” McKim said. “They cannot be abandoned to the Taliban.”
Australia’s first evacuation flight left Kabul on Wednesday morning with just 26 passengers on board, but Morrison said the ADF would run further flights “now throughout the course of this week and into next week”.
“The weather is closing in, which will present challenges over the next few days, but equally the situation can always turn, and so we are moving as quickly as we can,” he said.
The prime minister thanked the UK for picking up a further 76 people including Australian citizens and Afghan visa holders on a Royal Air Force flight on Wednesday night. They were transferred to a military base in the United Arab Emirates.
The same British plane also dropped off 40 ADF personnel at Kabul airport, together with provisions such as food and water.
A former Afghan interpreter for the Australian military was shot in the leg as he tried to pass a Taliban checkpoint outside Kabul airport earlier this week.
Payne described the security situation as “very fluid and complex and challenging”.
She said the Australian personnel who were there to help with logistics of further flights were located inside the airport.
The foreign minister acknowledged the dangerous conditions for civilians trying to reach the airport and said Australia was working with partners, especially the US, on those issues. “We are working with other countries to share lists of potential passengers and coordinate information and rescue efforts as we are able to,” Payne said.
The first evacuees were expected to arrive in Perth soon to begin their 14 days of mandatory quarantine.
Morrison said it had been “a difficult and distressing ordeal for many of the evacuees” and the federal and WA governments would provide medical and mental health support during the Covid quarantine period.
The WA government had agreed to take the evacuees in addition to the state’s weekly quarantine arrivals cap. The federal government was asking other state governments to also accommodate further evacuees above weekly arrivals caps.
Amid ongoing debate about whether the 20-year war had failed, the governor general, David Hurley, on Thursday urged ADF veterans who were distressed about the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan to seek assistance.
“You must not, cannot, let current events diminish the personal effort and contribution you made to this war,” Hurley, a former ADF chief, said in a statement.
Hurley also addressed the families of the 41 Australians who died in the war, saying while he understood “words are cold comfort at this time” they should know Australia “will forever honour the memory of your loved one”.