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Australia will let emergency visas expire for those still in Afghanistan, as it emerges the US was consulted on evacuation a month before Kabul’s ‘unexpected’ fall. By Karen Middleton.

Australia to allow visas for trapped Afghans to expire

A Taliban official addresses journalists after an attack on a military hospital in Kabul.
Credit: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

Thousands of emergency Australian visas granted to people still trapped in Afghanistan will be allowed to expire, with recipients promised priority if they apply for longer-term alternatives instead. The three-month visas, issued during the August airlift, will begin expiring within a fortnight.

The Saturday Paper has confirmed that those Afghans holding emergency subclass 449 visas who are now in Australia, or en route via third countries, will have their visas extended while they are assisted to apply for permanent replacements in the humanitarian, skilled or partner visa classes.

But while those still in Afghanistan will also get help to apply for other visas, they will not have the safety net of a 449 rollover while they do it. Instead, recipients who can be contacted are being told their applications for alternative visas will be prioritised.

Visa-holders left behind during the August emergency airlift include former interpreters for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and security guards who protected the now-closed Australian embassy in Kabul.

The government has confirmed that 4168 people were flown out of Afghanistan during the nine-day evacuation. Of those, 2984 were Afghans with approved Australian visas and 167 were Australian citizens. The rest were foreign citizens or Afghans sponsored by other countries.

The 449 visa decision comes as new details emerge from the lead-up to the airlift. DFAT has revealed that, despite a long-term campaign by former ADF personnel, the government began drafting plans to actively help former interpreters and security guards escape Afghanistan – including chartered evacuation flights booked for September – only after former prime minister John Howard joined the call for action in July.

The Australian government says it cannot offer much travel assistance to those still trying to flee, regardless of the visa they hold. While some clandestine evacuations have continued in the months since the August airlift from Kabul, those opportunities are diminishing.

Commercial aircraft seats are extremely limited and require complex negotiation both with third countries and the Taliban. The Australian government cannot encourage people to travel overland because its own travel advice says it is unsafe.

Short-term 449 visas are issued by the Immigration minister in emergency situations, to get people out of danger. There is no application process and recipients cannot apply for another type of visa for its 90-day duration. Lifting that ban requires ministerial intervention.

Minister Alex Hawke is set to renew the visas and lift the ban for onshore recipients.

While that arrangement helps regularise the status of those in Australia as they transition to more permanent arrangements, it’s understood the government believes it does not serve any purpose for those still in Afghanistan.

It is also concerned a rollover might encourage people to flee overland via unsafe routes, believing having a visa – as opposed to a promise – will make transit countries more willing to accept them. Some refugee advocates argue that letting the 449s expire creates an even greater incentive to flee urgently.

A spokesman for Hawke declined to comment.

At a hearing this week of the senate committee examining Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre expressed concern about the potential impact of any decision not to extend the 449 visas for those left behind in Afghanistan.

“Many of these people have been left in a state of anxiety,” the organisation’s principal solicitor, Dr Carolyn Graydon, told the committee on Monday.

The government has promised that at least 3000 of the 13,750 humanitarian visas available yearly would go to Afghans. The number of emergency visas already exceeds that.

As of a month ago, 5337 emergency subclass 449 visas had been issued to Afghans and 2844 recipients had come to Australia, according to the Department of Home Affairs. It was unclear exactly where many of the 2493 others were.

In evidence to a senate budget estimates committee hearing on October 25, Home Affairs officials could not say how many recipients remained in Afghanistan.

“We simply don’t know,” secretary Mike Pezzullo said.

Greens senator Nick McKim told the committee some had contacted his office.

“I don’t know how many there are [in Afghanistan] but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a couple of thousand at least,” he said.

Departmental first assistant secretary David Wilden said the department encouraged people to “look at permanent visa pathways”.

Afghanistan is now facing a multilayered crisis as the Taliban fails to stabilise the country and a deep drought and associated famine take hold. The economy is at risk of collapse. Many people have lost their jobs since Kabul fell on August 15 and those in rural areas badly affected by the lack of rain are struggling to survive as winter descends. Taliban retribution against anyone believed to have sided with foreign “infidels” and a new terrorist bombing campaign by Taliban enemies, primarily the Islamic State offshoot known as ISIS-Khorasan or ISIS-K, are again amplifying fear.

The Saturday Paper spoke this week with a man we will call “Omar”, a former official who studied overseas before working for the Afghan government.

Omar says that while the current security situation is relatively calm compared with the period before Kabul fell, he fears for the future.

“Recent incidents of ISIS-K attacks on the Taliban, especially in the eastern parts of the country, I believe are the start of a bigger problem,” he says.

Social media carries terrible images and stories of suffering, depicting Taliban beatings and worse. Desperate poverty is driving people to unthinkable acts, including selling their own children.

Omar describes a video posted online recently.

“I saw one man and his wife in Jalalabad,” he says. “He was standing on the street and calling. He wanted to sell his daughter.”

International media report similar stories, along with another unconfirmed report that the bodies of eight children were found outside Kabul. They had reportedly died from starvation.

“These are the stories that we hear from people and also from the social media,” Omar says from Kabul. “Street vendors, shopkeepers – they all complain they don’t have enough to feed their families.”

Like many others, Omar has lost his job and is wary of leaving his house, with Taliban conducting random interrogations. Married with children, he is looking for an opportunity to flee.

“I want a safe environment,” he says. “They should have a future … I came back to serve my country and I find myself in chaos, in a chaotic situation and I need to get out.”

He does not hold an Australian visa and is approaching several countries about asylum options.

Those on 449s who are still in Afghanistan include ADF and DFAT interpreters and security guards.

DFAT has now revealed that the government began drafting plans to help get the former staff out of Afghanistan after former prime minister John Howard added his voice to those calling for action, a month before Kabul fell.

Howard spoke out on July 8, saying Australia had a moral obligation to help its Afghan former staff and should not use petty definitions to exclude contractors, as DFAT was doing initially.

“I don’t think it’s something that should turn on some narrow legalism,” he said at the time.

In questions placed on notice through the senate’s Afghanistan inquiry, Labor’s shadow foreign minister Penny Wong asked DFAT if anything changed in visa processing for local staff after Howard’s intervention.

DFAT responded that on July 20, the government had authorised “further measures to expedite LEE [locally engaged employees] departures, including a plan for facilitated commercial flights if needed”.

It also revealed it arranged a slot for a charter flight in early September with a plan for a second, if needed. Those measures were “expected to exhaust the known and expected LEE and family demand” for visas at the time. The fall of Kabul prompted a full international emergency evacuation instead.

DFAT officials told the committee that a total of 2020 individual visas have now been issued to former locally engaged staff and their families – most this year.

Separately, DFAT said it approached the United States government in mid-July to discuss US evacuation planning. Both the US and Australia insist they were not expecting Kabul to fall when it did.

US President Joe Biden had announced on April 14 that allied forces would be out of Afghanistan by September 11, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison echoing the pledge on Australia’s behalf the following day.

Omar believes leaving was the right decision. “People were dying every day on both sides,” he says. “It wasn’t sustainable to go on like this. I think we were losing around 40 to 50 soldiers a day … War is not the solution. Peace is the only solution. How you sustain the peace is the only issue.”

But he says the mishandled withdrawal was “a nightmare” and the peace deal negotiated with the Taliban that underpinned it is no more.

“We don’t have any peace deal,” he says of the agreement the US brokered with the Taliban before it overran the country. “The Taliban took power by force and now there is another enemy rising up to fight the Taliban.”

Omar reflects on his country’s position as a pawn in the 19th-century power struggle between Britain, Russia and others, known as the Great Game. He fears it’s happening all over again.

“You know, these sorts of atrocities in remote areas, attacks by ISIS-K – it could be the start of a new Great Game – a Greater Game – in Afghanistan.”

For Afghans trapped within it, a foreign visa is the only way out.

Karen Middleton is a finalist in the 2021 Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism for her coverage of the Afghanistan evacuation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "A greater game".

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