The Australian government’s newly appointed adviser on resettling Afghan nationals has predicted the “residual trauma” among those fleeing Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will be “amongst the highest levels of any groups we’ve ever resettled”.
Paris Aristotle, the co-chair of an advisory panel announced on Monday, also said he welcomed signals from the government that it was open to taking more than the 3,000 Afghan nationals it initially pledged to accommodate by June next year.
“If the government decides to do that, I am absolutely confident that we have the capacity to do it well,” he said of an increased intake.
Aristotle said the new panel would focus immediately on how to help people who were airlifted out of Kabul over the past two weeks to access trauma and mental health services in Australia and to sponsor family members who were left behind in Afghanistan.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, he said the evacuees left Afghanistan “under very high pressure contexts where there was an extraordinary amount of anxiety, fear and desperation just about being able to be granted a visa, let alone getting yourself to the airport safely, getting past the gates and so forth”.
“The residual trauma for the group will be probably amongst the highest levels of any groups we’ve ever resettled historically,” he said.
Australia pulled its defence force personnel and other officials out of Kabul’s airport on Thursday, shortly before dozens of Afghan nationals and 13 US military personnel near the site were killed in a terrorist attack linked to an Islamic State affiliate.
The ADF airlifted about 4,100 people out of Afghanistan during the operation, including a total of 3,200 who are either Australians or Afghan nationals with Australian visas, but the government has not yet provided a more detailed breakdown.
Aristotle said the Covid-19 pandemic added another level of complexity to the resettlement process, with people enduring “more isolated circumstances” as they went through two weeks of hotel quarantine on arrival.
“Normally when you settle in Australia you immediately go into things like English language programmes, kids are going to school fairly soon, they visit health services or mental health and trauma services. Much of that can’t happen in the way it normally happens.”
The Advisory Panel on Australia’s Resettlement of Afghan Nationals met for the first time on Monday and is expected to hold three consultations with Afghan community representatives this week.
The government has so far reserved at least 3,000 places for Afghan nationals within Australia’s existing 13,750 overall places in the humanitarian program, rather than a special additional intake of the kind Tony Abbott announced for 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
But in the wake of the announcement, Scott Morrison and the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, have signalled that the number could go higher, and Australia would resettle Afghan nationals “at elevated levels into the years ahead”.
“I want to stress that that 3,000 is a floor, it’s not a ceiling,” the prime minister told parliament last week. “If we need to increase the size of the overall [humanitarian] program to accommodate additional persons, then we will.”
Aristotle welcomed those signals from the government. “In my view, the capability of the settlement sector, the local Afghan community and the wider Australian community would make it more than feasible for us to be able to accommodate larger numbers,” Aristotle said.
Asked whether he had encouraged the government to flag a strong commitment over several years, Aristotle said: “That’s certainly been my view, but it was also a view that the prime minister and the minister had already come to – the view that this should be a multi-year initiative, that it won’t be resolved quickly.”
Aristotle said Afghan Australians were “an extraordinary community in terms of what they have already brought to the country”.
Aristotle said with the situation in Afghanistan “still very fluid”, it was unclear if any processing of refugee applications within that country would be possible.
He said a lot of people may have already crossed the border into neighbouring countries, as they had anticipated the situation might deteriorate. The United States and other countries had also airlifted large numbers of people, and as a result of the joint efforts some of them may end up being settled in Australia.
Australia joined nearly 100 countries in issuing a US-led statement on Monday saying that they had “received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorisation from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country”.
Announcing the new advisory panel, Hawke said the government wanted to offer additional specialised support so Afghan nationals could “start their lives in Australia on the strongest possible footing”.
The minister said he was “very pleased to see an outpouring of support across the Australian community for the evacuees and the humanitarian entrants to follow”.