In hiding, an Afghan woman set alight by the Taliban is forced to wait to join her brother in Brisbane

Huma and her family fled to Pakistan where they now fear deportation. Australia’s visa backlog is making them increasingly desperate

The burns that wrap around Huma’s body are barely visible in her modest Afghan dress. But they serve as a constant reminder of the Taliban’s cruelty.

Huma* was working at the attorney general’s office in Kunduz province, north of Kabul, in 2019 when she says her advocacy for domestic violence victims made her the target of religious extremists.

“The Taliban hated me,” she says. “They called me a spy, a traitor. They demanded that I marry one of their fighters.”

When Huma refused the proposal, two members of the Taliban attacked her.

“I was walking towards a grocery shop with my mum when [two men on a motorcycle] poured petrol on my body and they set me on fire,” she says.

“I lost a lot of blood. I thought it was going to be the end of my life.”

Huma suffered burns to more than 40% of her body as a result of the attack.

Her situation has grown increasingly desperate since the Taliban rose to power last year, forcing her family to relocate to Pakistan.

Huma’s brother Aaron Sadat, an Afghan-Australian, lodged a visa application 12 months ago for his four siblings, parents, nephew and brother-in-law to join him in Brisbane, and they’ve been anxiously waiting for a decision ever since.

This week the family’s visas for Pakistan expired, putting them at risk of deportation.

“This is our biggest worry at the moment,” Huma says. “We are in hiding and scared we will be arrested and sent back to Afghanistan.”

Immigration lawyer Ziya Zarifi says the family’s distressing situation is emblematic of the experience of thousands of other Afghans.

“There’s a huge backlog of these applications that the department is currently processing,” Zarifi says.

“A client of mine, I lodged his application in August 2018. He paid $17,000 in application fees and he’s yet to be reunited with his family who fled persecution from Afghanistan to Pakistan.”

The Department of Home Affairs said it has continued “to give priority to Afghan nationals who have lodged family visa applications”.

The department said it set up a specialised team to process that case load last year and have granted more than 1,700 Afghan partner and family visas, including those applied for as far back as 2012-13.

More than 5,500 Afghan nationals have arrived in Australia on temporary humanitarian visas since last August. But more than 45,400 humanitarian visa applications remain undecided after being lodged in Australia by, or on behalf of, Afghan nationals.

As a prominent member of Queensland’s Afghan community, Sadat’s family application has earned support from state and federal politicians.

Greens senator Larissa Waters said Sadat has “well-founded fears for his family’s safety”.

“The gendered impacts of Taliban rule cannot be ignored,” she said. “Mr Sadat’s sisters have experienced first-hand the threat to their freedom, education, employment, safety and bodily autonomy.”

Queensland’s multicultural affairs minister, Leanne Linard, confirmed she has spoken to the federal immigration minister, Andrew Giles, about Sadat’s concerns for his family.

Giles declined to comment when contacted by Guardian Australia.

In March the Australian government announced 16,500 additional places for Afghans over four years under the exisiting humanitarian program.

The commitment built on 10,000 humanitarian places promised for Afghan nationals in January, as well as 5,000 visas within the family stream.

But Zarifi says Australia should expand its emergency humanitarian program by at least 20,000 additional places for Afghans annually over the next five years, considering the dire situation of women and girls in the country.

Since grasping power, the Taliban have denied girls education, barred women from travelling more than 72km without a male guardian and eliminated women from political participation.

“Australia has a moral duty toward the people of Afghanistan and should not abandon them,” Zarifi says.

“I strongly urge the prime minister to help at-risk groups and ease the suffering of the people of Afghanistan.”

A discussion about “at-risk” groups that Sadat alleges occurred in a phone call with an official at the Department of Home Affairs left him in tears this week.

Sadat claims the official told him that his sister would be safe to walk the streets of Kabul and his family is not at risk as they are Pashtuns rather than an ethnic minority.

The department rejected the claims, with a spokesperson saying: “The Australian government remains committed to supporting the Afghan community at this distressing time.”

“The department is working to ensure that visa options continue to be available to Afghan nationals,” the spokesperson said. “All visa applications are processed in accordance with government announcements and … program priorities.”

The spokesperson said the government “is committed to generous and flexible humanitarian and settlement programs that meet Australia’s international protection obligations”, positioning “Australia as a global leader in international resettlement efforts”.

Huma hopes the government will follow through on its claims of generosity when assessing her family’s application.

“I want to get treatment for my burns and continue to fight for freedom, for women’s rights,” she says.

“I call on the Australian government to please save our lives.”

* Name has been changed to protect identity.


Eden Gillespie

The GuardianTramp

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