‘Moral obligation’: former prime minister John Howard calls for Australia to help Afghan interpreters

The slashing of overseas entries has added new level of panic for Afghans who worked with Australian troops and fear Taliban

Former Australian prime minister John Howard has added to calls for the federal government to grant protection visas for Afghan subcontractors who fear for their lives under resurgent Taliban rule.

Howard, who first sent Australian troops to the war-torn country in 2001 leading to two decades of involvement in the conflict, said the nation has an ethical duty to provide safe haven for Afghans who aided their cause.

“It was a moral obligation that we shamefully disregarded many years ago when we pulled out of Vietnam,” the 81-year-old told SBS TV.

“I do not want to see a repetition of that failure in relation to Afghanistan.”

His comments come as an Afghan interpreter who worked with Australian forces and fears Taliban retribution has had his flight to Australia with his family cancelled, after caps on international arrivals were halved.

The interpreter told the Guardian he had been scheduled to leave Afghanistan on 24 June, but the flight was cancelled after his wife tested positive to Covid-19.

After she recovered the flight was rescheduled on the condition everyone in the family tested negative. But the later flight was then also cancelled after the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison announced the reduction in the cap from 14 July to ease pressure on hotel quarantine.

The slashing of international entries has added a new level of panic for desperate Afghans whose work alongside Australian troops has made them targets of the Taliban.

About 80 Afghan interpreters and their families arrived in Australia on commercial flights in the last days of June. But hundreds of their colleagues and other contractors are still in the country, either waiting for their visa applications to be processed or waiting for a flight once the visa has been approved.

The home affairs department confirmed that Afghans approved under the special humanitarian visa program for locally engaged employees (LEE) found to be at risk of retribution are included in the capped arrivals allowed to enter the country.

The flight bookings with Emirates via Dubai are made by the Australian immigration department for those whose visas have been approved, meaning they have no direct contact with the airline.

Another interpreter who has been waiting to receive his flight confirmation said he had not been contacted by anyone from the government about the changes. This has left him increasingly anxious about his chances of leaving Afghanistan safely.

“It’s not good news for us [because] time is running out,” he said. “We cannot go outside due to security problems and target killings.”

Sources in Kabul told the Guardian the Taliban had moved to within two hours of Kabul and were planning to descend on the capital in the coming weeks.

A home affairs spokesman said the department was working with other government agencies and service providers to facilitate the processing of applications and the movement of visa holders to Australia.

“Visa grants in 2020-21 under the LEE program were the highest since 2013-14,” the spokesman said.

He said since 15 April this year more than 230 people in Afghanistan had been granted a visa under the program, including family members.

“Visa applications from certified LEE are afforded the highest processing priority within the humanitarian program but applicants must still meet rigorous health, character and national security requirements,” the spokesman said. “Depending on individual circumstances this may take time.”

The Guardian has seen letters from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade stating that the approval process can take 12 months or more.

Last Friday, a group of guards who previously worked to secure the Australian embassy gathered in secrecy at a “peaceful demonstration” to plead with the Australian government to urgently consider their visas and evacuate them.

Speaking from Kabul on behalf of 140 guards, Bilal* said their work made them visible to the Taliban, who now regarded them as “traitors”. One guard was shot at while driving with his wife and young son last month.

“It will be a big human crisis if [the Taliban] come in power,” he said.

“We know the Australian people feel everything and we just ask the Australian government to feel our struggles and hear our voice – when we rise our voice it is not for us, it is for our families.

“My family is everything for me. At least they should rescue my family even if they leave me behind in the hell of Afghanistan.

“The Taliban never think the woman is a human – they cannot even leave their house without approval.”

Howard said Australia must help those potentially in peril.

“I don’t think it’s something that should turn on some narrow legalism,” the nation’s second longest-serving prime minister said.

“If a group of people gave help to Australians such that their lives and that of those immediately around them are in danger we have a moral obligation to help them.”

Former Afghanistan veteran and army lawyer Glenn Kolomeitz said the window of opportunity to support eligible Afghans was rapidly closing, given the recent departure of US and Australian troops, and the immigration process had suffered a “complete breakdown”.

He and his team at GAP Veterans and Legal Services are now representing the group of 140 guards as a “class client” in an effort to speed up their applications.

“We’ve had to take this step because the Afghan LEE programme is completely dysfunctional,” Kolomeitz said.

“This way the government sits at arm’s length from the application process, and they can get on with their job of vetting and approving, or rejecting or otherwise the applications.

“Procedural fairness is a key term here because these people have been applying to defence and DFAT through the LEE program, and then having their applications rejected because they couldn’t jump through the hoops.”

* Bilal’s name has been changed to protect his identity


Kate Banville and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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