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Reports from the ground show people with valid visas were forced back at the airport, amid allegations of a politicised process for claims. By Karen Middleton.

Government agencies worked against each other in Kabul evacuation

Australian agencies mounting last month’s evacuation from the Afghan capital, Kabul, appear to have effectively worked against each other in the chaotic conditions, with Home Affairs issuing emergency humanitarian visas and some Defence personnel on the ground refusing to accept them.

Some people say they were either stopped from entering Kabul airport or, once inside, refused a place on an Australian evacuation flight because soldiers would not accept their Australian visas.

Getting through the crowds to the final foreign-forces checkpoints and then beyond them into the airport was a massive challenge throughout the evacuation. Many people spent days in scorching, putrid conditions, clutching passports and visa documents. It was dangerous for both them and the soldiers providing security.

One former Afghan interpreter for the Australian Defence Force, who had made it through the chaotic checkpoints and into the airport, says an Australian soldier forced him back out into the street, insisting his valid electronic visa was fake.

The man and his family are still in Kabul, fearing for their safety. Reports suggest the Taliban is conducting violent house searches for young men and boys from families connected to foreigners or to the Panjshir region where resistance fighters refuse to surrender.

The interpreter sent a message to Australian advocates saying that after 38 hours waiting with his family at the airport’s Abbey Gate, he made it inside, only to have an ADF member reject his documents.

“I found Australian soldier, he check my electronic visa papers and all,” he wrote. “He said, ‘This is not visa, this is evacuation offer.’ ”

The interpreter had been issued an emergency class 449 temporary visa to “facilitate urgent travel to Australia”. The visa is issued at the discretion of the minister for Immigration and is valid for three years.

He is among many former interpreters and others issued these visas who did not get out of Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban.

The Australian personnel were under enormous pressure, having to make snap decisions about whether people were presenting genuine documents. The Saturday Paper is aware of ADF personnel who are extremely uneasy about some of the instructions they were given.

The soldiers and Australian officials were operating from a priority list, calling specific people forward and passing over others who were also approved.

The interpreter’s electronic paperwork directed him to a specific airport gate. But the Australian soldier refused to accept it and, he alleges, threw him and his family back out into the desperate crowd.

“So he said that I don’t have visa stamped on my passport,” the distraught interpreter wrote. “So they kicked me and my kids out of airport.”

The man checked with his army supervisor in Australia who confirmed it was a proper visa. But it was too late. “Now I can’t get in. All gates are blocked by Taliban.”

Others are also reporting that ADF personnel ignored their visas or insisted they were not real and refused to facilitate access to Australian aircraft.

Another former interpreter had the same experience. “He asked me for the visa and documents,” the man writes of the Australian soldier he spoke to at the airport perimeter. He says the soldier said the documents were “not real” and promised to speak to a superior officer.

“He just vanished from the scene and later the US forces came using tear gas on everyone and removed us from the scene so we sadly went back home.”

The man was puzzled by the apparent confusion between the agency issuing the visas and those reviewing them.

“It’s sad that we have been granted this visa through the Department of Home Affairs by email and yet the soldiers can’t recognise this type of visa or they can’t identify us,” he wrote. “All they say is that the visa is fake or so. There is a lack of communication and co-operation between the military personnel and other authorities. It would be much better if every single Australian soldier is updated about this issue to help those having their legal visa and documents and get them into the airport terminal.”

The Saturday Paper has been told that another former interpreter who had printed out the attachment, and not the document itself, to an emailed visa document was ejected from the airport because he could not produce the email on his smashed phone.

An unconnected family group of seven, who were not interpreters and had different advocates in Australia, spent more than four days at the airport, waiting with valid 449 visas while Australian soldiers and officials bypassed them and took others through.

They were also told they needed to have physical stamps in a passport and that their electronic visa documents were inadequate. One soldier was heard to say that he was “not a fucking Immigration officer”.

Eventually, on the afternoon of Thursday, August 26, an Australian official appeared at the gate with a loudhailer, identified himself as a diplomat from the now-closed Australian embassy, and said Australia was withdrawing, nobody else would be evacuated and visa-holders should go home.

Asked if anyone from Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s office had contacted ADF personnel directly, to give operational instructions, a spokesperson for Dutton said: “No.” The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which led the evacuation operation, denies there was any official instruction to exclude visa-holders from the airport.

“The claim any Australian official refused a group of Afghan visa-holders entry on the grounds that officials were only accepting people with visas in their passports is not true,” DFAT says in a statement.

The last Australian flight is understood to have departed just before a suicide bomber detonated near the gate.

Other groups received much more assistance. Afghan athletes were among the early evacuees after lobbying by SBS broadcaster and former Socceroos star Craig Foster. That group included members of the Afghan women’s football team and two Afghan Paralympians.

A group of about 100 Afghan military officers who had studied in Australia were airlifted out, along with family members, and are now in quarantine. A group of civilian university alumni was not.

Many people have praised Immigration Minister Alex Hawke and his staff and officials for acting quickly in considering urgent cases.

But some in the Australian Afghan community who were asked directly to provide lists of vulnerable potential evacuees, and who set aside all other tasks to do it, report that nobody they listed got out.

The government has said it will reserve at least 3000 places in the humanitarian program for Afghans. The Australian Afghan community is calling for that to be increased to 20,000.

The process of selecting who could go and who could not distressed some working on the ground in Kabul.

People without influential advocates seemed to have more trouble.

An interpreter who had worked with former army captain and advocate Jason Scanes in Afghanistan also did not make it out. The man, who uses the name Hassan to protect his identity, applied for a visa in 2013 but was rejected on character grounds three years ago.

The Federal Court full bench overturned the decision in May last year and the department had to start the process again.

Scanes wrote to Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews on August 6, urging that Hassan’s application be processed.

On August 19, four days after Kabul fell, Hassan was refused again on character grounds. On August 25, he was suddenly issued an emergency 449 visa. He went to Kabul airport and was there when the bomb went off, fleeing uninjured with his family by road into Pakistan. On September 3, Home Affairs told him his visa had been issued in error and it was revoked.

Scanes believes Hassan is being punished for being connected to him. Scanes works for Labor senator Anthony Chisholm and ran as a Labor candidate in Queensland – then Home Affairs minister and now Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s home state – at the 2019 federal election. He has been an outspoken critic of the government.

“My firm belief is it’s purely political,” Scanes says. “This is about an individual who served in uniform, who has a legitimate claim to come to Australia.”

Others, including Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James, have also raised questions.

“I would hope his candidacy for Labor at the last election hasn’t influenced any decision-making,” James says.

While Scanes’s political advocacy has clearly annoyed some government figures, the government insists all such visa decisions are based on substantive information.

For months, Scanes, fellow former soldier Stuart McCarthy and others have called for a faster process to approve and evacuate those who served Australia as interpreters, security guards and other contractors.

McCarthy condemns the evacuation’s inconsistencies. He says while many interpreters did not get through, one ADF member on the ground, acting on his own initiative, helped put about 100 people on flights.

“I’m also aware of numerous examples of … applicants who were granted 449 electronic visas at the last minute but were denied entry to Kabul airport because they did not have the visas physically stamped in their passports,” McCarthy says.

Other advocates say about 800 former interpreters, embassy staff and family members remain behind.

The Saturday Paper understands the government is still working on how to get more people out, as are advocacy groups.

Scanes doesn’t blame ADF personnel for what happened at the airport.

“They would’ve been simply following orders,” he says. “They would’ve only been acting on specific orders or information given to them by their chain of command.”

In fact, it’s not clear how many people were giving orders during the operation.

After what proved to be false speculation that Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, was on personal leave, The Saturday Paper made informal inquiries on August 26. The rumour was denied, and no formal question was lodged with Defence.

But later that day, The Saturday Paper received an emailed statement answering a question we did not ask.

“The Chief of the Defence Force is on duty,” the statement said. “The CDF is directing the planning and operational parameters for the implementation of domestic and international operations currently being undertaken by the Australian Defence Force. The conduct of the Kabul airlift, and the safety of ADF personnel involved in the mission are the priority for the CDF.”

In contrast, questions that were asked about the evacuation were ignored.

On September 1, The Saturday Paper asked Defence what time the last evacuation flight left Kabul on August 26. We also asked if it was true, as reported in The Daily Telegraph, that the prime minister had personally intervened to hold the last evacuation flight on the tarmac while Australian personnel searched for, and rescued, an Afghan woman and her child.

In the wider Defence community, many dismissed the story as fanciful because, under the Defence Act, only the CDF is supposed to issue directions to military personnel.

In an emergency airlift, the pilot is deemed the best judge of the security situation and is authorised to make decisions about takeoff and landing. Taking directions from afar can risk the lives of people on board.

The day after these questions were lodged, Defence media asked for more time to respond. But no further correspondence was received, queries were ignored, and the department provided no answers at all before deadline, eight days later.

The Saturday Paper has since learnt that as the evacuation began, ADF personnel received new instructions to have no contact with media.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the evacuation involved 32 flights and airlifted 4100 people, including at least 600 for other countries. He said 3500 were flown to Australia, including 100 who escaped Afghanistan and were evacuated from other countries after the Kabul airlift ended.

At time of press, the government was not yet able to confirm how many Afghan asylum seekers were among them.

“Other countries helped uplift our people as well – and the Afghan nationals who’d worked with us,” he added. “And that was a very dangerous operation.”

As the horrors unfolded at the airport, a New South Wales high school student wrote frantically to advocates about her uncle, an Afghan former ADF employee with a visa, who was trying to escape.

After 18 hours at the airport’s Abbey Gate, he too was rejected, apparently because he didn’t have an Australian passport.

“There are many other families that have been rejected,” the girl wrote. “Now that they have left, what are these people going to do? How long will they have to wait for the Australian forces to come back, if they do? Why is it that people with Australian visas and people who have worked with the Australian Defence Force are not getting let out because they don’t have an Australian passport?”

They are all reasonable questions. From Defence at least, it’s increasingly difficult to get any answers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Govt agencies worked against each other in Kabul evacuation".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.