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The Australian government’s emergency 449 visas are set to expire, as another ex-ADF interpreter has been reported dead. By Karen Middleton.

Three interpreters killed in Afghanistan

Two more interpreters have been murdered in Afghanistan, bringing to three the number whose deaths have become public this week.

Lawyer and former soldier Glenn Kolomeitz told The Saturday Paper he had received information that an offshore client of his law firm, GAP Veteran & Legal Services, who had worked with the Australian Defence Force and was seeking to come to Australia, had been killed in Afghanistan this week, along with another who had worked with United States’ forces. On Wednesday, the ABC reported the murder of another former ADF interpreter whose family is now in hiding.

The news comes as thousands of emergency three-month Australian visas issued to Afghans since the August fall of Kabul are about to expire.

Advocates are urging the government to convert the special category 449 visas to longer-term visas or at least roll them over until further decisions are made.

“They need to triage our LEEs [locally engaged employees] who are at risk because of the work they did for us and keep working on that 449 process,” Kolomeitz says.

The 449 visa has no application process and is issued in urgent situations at the Immigration minister’s discretion. Those on a 449 are ineligible to apply for any other visa without specific ministerial permission.

Last week, an official from the Home Affairs Department told a Migration Institute of Australia conference the government would not be renewing 449s. Once they expired, recipients could then apply for other visas.

Kolomeitz says this puts people at unacceptable risk, even those in third countries such as Pakistan. “If they’re sitting there and their Australian visa expires, they’re unlawful non-citizens and they can be thrown back across the border,” he says.

Two Afghan families he is assisting, now in Pakistan, have visas due to expire within days.

The Saturday Paper understands the government will soon clarify the arrangements. It has already received about 26,000 applications.

The principal director of Human Rights for All, Alison Battisson, says the rules relating to crossing the Pakistan border had also changed in the past six weeks, creating further confusion.

“The emphasis of anyone trying to assist should be on supporting the person on the ground to make their own decision [about trying to cross] because things have changed so quickly and we do not have the most current, best, up-to-date information,” Battisson says.

The executive director of Refugee Legal, David Manne, says that while the sheer number of desperate people is the main cause of processing delays, Australia’s visa system is geared towards people who have already fled a dangerous home country. In the case of Afghanistan, many are still stuck there – without an Australian embassy. The government is having to adjust its system to deal with the change.

“What we’re looking at here is a seismic shift,” Manne says. “… It’s absolutely critical the key issues about processing be resolved swiftly.”

He says the murder of interpreters underscores how critical that is, arguing 449 visas should be extended and close third-country communications maintained. “All the resources of government should be brought to bear on this,” he says.

His organisation has mobilised pro bono support from 20 law firms, with “hundreds of lawyers” working to help those at imminent risk. He also urges support for Afghans in Australia, whose trauma “reverberates deeply”.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke says Australia remains focused on how to rescue people. “Remember this: there is no government in Afghanistan at the moment, not a legitimate one … the international community recognises,” he told ABC Radio National. “There is a group of evil mullahs who’ve got a radical ideology, who persecute women and minorities, who have an attitude towards people who’ve worked for the West that is very dangerous. It is not a simple equation.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "Three interpreters killed in Afghanistan ".

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