Dozens of Afghan nationals who worked with Australia in Afghanistan but missed out on a visa for at-risk employees have been told they will have priority in the broader pool of 3,000 humanitarian places.
The move raises the prospect that some of the humanitarian places announced by the Australian government after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last week could be taken by former interpreters and security guards blocked for the scheme for former employees.
Former workers fear retribution from the Taliban for assisting western forces and there have been chaotic and dangerous scenes on the road to Kabul airport from where Australia and its allies are operating evacuation flights.
But some workers have been deemed ineligible for the Australian government’s specific scheme, including on technicalities such as being a contractor rather than a direct employee or not applying in time.
An email sent by the defence department on Monday, and seen by Guardian Australia, tells unsuccessful applicants for the employee scheme they might be eligible for the broader humanitarian intake.
“Given your links to Australia, while you have not been certified as a locally engaged employee, you will be given priority for consideration as part of the 3000 places in our humanitarian programme as recently announced by the government,” the email says.
The email adds that the department of home affairs “will be in contact with you directly as soon as possible to gather the necessary information to consider your claims for protection”.
As the Australian parliament paused on Monday to reflect on the defence force’s 20-year engagement in Afghanistan, Anthony Albanese attacked the government’s response to the worsening crisis.
The opposition leader said the Australian team at Kabul airport had been “presented with an almost impossible task – one made all the harder because this effort was launched far too late”.
And he said the confusion over Australian embassy security guards who were advised over the weekend to contact a migration agent was “almost unbelievable in its sheer callousness”.
It has emerged that some Afghan interpreters and embassy staff who assisted Australia are being granted temporary visas to escape the Taliban regime, a day after some were told their special category visa applications had been rejected.
On Monday the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, confirmed some contractors had been granted a 449 humanitarian visa and have been told they should “make their way to the gates” at the airport. Guardian Australia is aware of at least three interpreters and their families who are among the group of people given a lifeline and safe passage to Australia.
One interpreter, who submitted his application in June, told Guardian Australia he was rejected by the defence department on Saturday and unable to apply for the locally engaged employee program. On Monday, his hopes were lifted after receiving an evacuation offer and temporary visa from the Australian government.
Another interpreter, who was in his final stages of the special category visa process, was awaiting a medical assessment appointment when the Taliban recaptured the capital last week, sending it into chaos.
On Sunday he told Guardian Australia he’d managed to make it inside the airport with his family three days earlier and has been waiting for a flight.
“We can’t see anything because we are in a compound,” he said. “We hear gun fires all the time.”
Afghan-Australian Leeda Moorabi has been trying to assist her brother-in-law and his sister, also Australian citizens, to get to the airport so they can board an evacuation flight. Guardian Australia is choosing not to name the pair for their safety.
“He waited at the gate yesterday for over 20 hours and then they said it was closed so he went to a different gate and there the Taliban checkpoint would not let his sister pass as she didn’t have an Australian visa.
“So he went to the gate to try and speak with troops but was unsuccessful as it was so crowded … They went home again.
“He’s scared so we’ve had to convince him to go back to the airport but he’s scared he will lose his sister.
“We have told him to form a group with other [Australian] citizens at the airport and they should approach the gate as a group and make as much noise as possible, we’re hoping this works.”
Glenn Kolomeitz, a migration lawyer and former army major who represents hundreds of former ADF interpreters and Australian support staff, accused the government of trying “to spin this to the media”, before informing his clients they’d already been approved temporary visas.
He said the confusion had further panicked the Afghans scrambling to escape the country, fearing their work for coalition forces has placed them at further risk.
He said he and his team were “working around the clock to just get these guys out”.
“The bureaucracy around this situation has been horrendous.”
The Australian government said the ADF had flown a further four evacuation flights on Sunday night, carrying more than 450 people. The ABC reported on Monday that Defence had also rescued more than 50 Afghan athletes and their dependants.
Hinting that a deadline to be out of Afghanistan by 31 August may not be reasonable in order to bring home all Australians and visa holders, the foreign minister, Marise Payne, said Australia was in discussions with its ally about extending the US-led evacuation operations.
Payne said Australia was “absolutely ready to support a continuing operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport”.
In parliament, the defence minister, Peter Dutton, read the names of all 41 Australians who had died during Australia’s longest military engagement, while the prime minister, Scott Morrison, acknowledged “the terrible loss suffered by their families”.
Albanese said the Taliban takeover was “potentially lethal for the many Afghans who have worked with Australian troops and officials over many years have and have not yet been given safe passage out”.
In question time, the shadow defence minister, Brendan O’Connor, asked Morrison to take responsibility for failing to act more quickly to rescue Afghans who had worked with the ADF.
Morrison said 430 workers and family members had been resettled under the locally engaged employee scheme since April. “This government has been working steadfastly, consistently, and urgently for years, for years, to bring people out of Afghanistan and we continue to do that now.”