Afghan nationals who worked for the Australian military and government in Afghanistan before the fall of Kabul have pleaded for help to find safety, a year after the Taliban violently reclaimed power.
The Guardian has spoken with more than a dozen Afghan nationals trying to get to Australia, many of whom hold valid visas or are still waiting on applications, as Australia faces an overwhelming demand for humanitarian places.
They are former LEEs – locally engaged employees – who worked as interpreters for Australian military forces, as embassy staff and guards, or on Australian-funded aid projects.
Many are in hiding in Afghanistan, fearful of Taliban reprisals, while others are stranded in Pakistan and Iran.
These are their stories, in their words:
“I have worked for Australian aid for more than three years. I was invited by Dfat to Islamabad, and I have passed the health and biometrics checks eight months ago. For the last eight months, Dfat has been saying, ‘we can’t do much, you have to wait’. I am so tired of their response as my kids have nothing to eat, we have no support in Islamabad to live and it takes 8 months to process our visa while we’re already certified by Dfat. We cannot stay in our accommodation.
“My boys eat only one meal a day. My wife has got health and mental issues. It is a really difficult situation for my boys, starving, they are two, eight and 10 years old. They cannot go out as their visas are expired. We face police outside and the Australian government is not responding to our questions.”
“I worked for Dfat in Afghanistan for five years. At the request of my Dfat colleagues, I submitted an application for Dfat’s certification. But since August 2021, Dfat has been saying my application for ministerial approval is still under consideration. It has taken more than a year, and I wonder what makes my case different from others.
“The Taliban have executed two colleagues I worked with at USAID. I feel I will be next. I remember family members warning me to stay away from international organisations when I worked for the Australian government, lest I be left behind and betrayed. Now, I am reminded of what I was told. I gather I should have worked for someone else as the Australians have closed the door on my face.”
“I worked for an Australian-funded aid project in Kabul for more than two years. Now I am living as internally displaced person in Ghazni. I have lost everything in my life. I don’t know who to contact or how. I have lost all the documents and I have nothing to provide to the Australian or any other organisations. In my personal email I had some copies and evidence that I have provided to the Australian government to support my application. But they have done nothing for over a year.
“My children and my husband are called ‘puppets of the Australians’, ‘puppets of the foreigner’. My children are asking me ‘what have we done that these people are treating us this way?’ I have no response to them. The Taliban accuse of reporting sensitive information about the Taliban during the past 20 years. They oppress us and say we are responsible for the Taliban losses.”
“The Taliban arrested and arbitrarily detained my 16-year-old son. In the morning they came into our neighbourhood and started shooting. We didn’t know what was happening. At first everyone thought they will not harm anyone as they had promised amnesty. But then the Taliban started searching for me and asked ‘where is Salema?’ I was so scared. I was crying and they took my hand in front and took me to the military car. I was in detention of the Taliban for one month. They were asking me if I was participating in women’s protests, and was I still reporting to Australian government. I told them that yes, I have worked for the Australian government, but I don’t report anything. After one month, they released me. The night I was detained, my son was injured. My daughter-in-law was injured. They had a baby who was only three months old.
“I have asked the Australian government for help as I am in a threatening situation because of my support for the Australian mission. Unfortunately, we just receive automatic emails from Dfat. Nothing else.”
“We fought on the same battlefield together, against the same enemy. You called us brothers. But now you leave us in this hell. Our lives are hell and we are left alone. We trusted each other; we never thought this would happen. The Taliban did not adhere to the amnesty they had announced, they are looking for ex-military forces to torture them every day, and they enjoy torturing them very much, and then they kill them. We ate together with them, slept under the same roof and trained together … If one of us would be killed, we would sympathise with each other like brothers, and Nato forces would always call us brothers. And these forces now leave us like this, alone.
“They leave us with our hands tied, in front of the same enemies that we fought against for years. I think those countries that said they were strengthening democracy in Afghanistan and talking about peace were lying. They told us ‘we will never leave you alone’. They were here for 20 years, and now they have forgotten us. Every day we despair. We have no food to eat, and we know they, the Taliban, are coming for us.”
Demand for visas outstrips places
Australia is dealing with an unprecedented demand for humanitarian places for Afghans seeking sanctuary.
About 5,500 Afghans have arrived in Australia on humanitarian visas since the fall of Kabul, but nearly 48,000 applications – representing more than 210,000 people – remain outstanding. This outstrips, by a factor of seven, the 31,500 places set asideAfghan nationals in the humanitarian program and family streams over the next four financial years.
LEE applicants are prioritised by the Australian government, but most face a two-step process: an initial application for certification from the Department of Defence or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as a locally engaged employee; and a second application to home affairs for a humanitarian visa to travel to Australia. Most have applied with their families.
Afghan nationals send open letter to PM
More than a dozen former interpreters, embassy staff and aid project workers have written an open letter to the Australian prime minister and foreign minister pleading for help.
“We are the individuals most at risk of violence and reprisals following the Taliban takeover in August 2021,” the letter says.
“Few of the ‘at risk’ Afghans employees have been evacuated to Australia, and a very large number remain in grave danger in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“In many cases, the Taliban have arrested these people and are under continuous surveillance, some members have been killed while others are detained, and some have been released in support to join or provide assistance to the Taliban.”
Can’t see the open letter below? Click here to read the pdf
Australian government urges patience in ‘distressing time’
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said “the Australian government remains committed to supporting the Afghan community at this distressing time”.
“And asks for patience with visa application processes given the number of applications far exceeds the number of places available under the program.”
The spokesperson said more than 5,500 Afghan nationals have arrived in Australia on temporary humanitarian visas after the fall of Kabul. told the Guardian
The immigration minister, Andrew Giles, has described the pleas for visas as “absolutely unprecedented” and the demand for protection as “overwhelming”.
“This is a very, very difficult set of circumstances,” he told ABC radio. “It’s obviously a priority that we work our way through people who have been involved in helping Australia through that long conflict, as well as those who are minorities, women and girls.
“In terms of people who are currently holding visas, we are concerned in particular about those who are in places like Pakistan and who are more readily able to make their pathway through to Australia.
“We are working with that government and also with people in Iran to make sure that as many people as possible can find their route to safety as quickly as possible.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities