Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday confirmed Australia would look to join evacuation efforts alongside the US and Britain but said he “will not be discussing any operational plans at this point”.
“I don’t think it is advisable for me to go into operational arrangements that are being put in place for the security of those we’re seeking to help,” Mr Morrison said. “What I can assure you is this task has the utmost urgency and priority of the government and, of course, has been considered at the highest levels of the government yesterday.”
Along with the rescue operation, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed on Friday that the government will expand the net of Afghans who are eligible to receive visas to include individuals who had less formal links to the Australian government during the decades-long conflict.
The federal Opposition has called on the government to urgently fast-track visas and evacuations for the immediate family members of Australians who are in Afghanistan, along with those who worked with the Australian Defence Force.
The Australian government has been criticised by military experts and former soldiers who served in Afghanistan for its relatively slow response processing the applications of Afghan interpreters and other locally engaged workers who say they will be targeted by the Taliban for helping foreign forces.
Ezatullah Rahimi, who served as an interpreter with Australian troops for almost four years and is now an Australian citizen, has been trying to get the Australian government to accept humanitarian visas for up to 14 family members in Kandahar, which was taken by the Taliban last week.
Mr Rahimi, 31, said his sister’s husband was recently killed, while his other family members were regularly threatened by the Taliban.
“We are running out of time… it won’t take long for the Taliban to take over Kabul,” he said.
“My message to the Australian government is this: mate, don’t handpass. You asked me to stand next to you, and I stood next to you. I was hit multiple times by ambushes – I got targeted by the special forces of Taliban, the ‘Red Group’. I’ve had multiple threats to my family.
“Americans have picked up their people, the British picked up all of their people, Canada has promised to take 20,000 people.”
Another Afghan-Australian, who wished not to be named to protect family members still in Afghanistan, recently left Kabul over the weekend by paying $9500 in flights to return to Sydney.
“I started fearing for my life as the Taliban are capturing multiple cities in one day,” he said.
The Opposition’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong and home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally said the government must urgently fast-track visas for immediate family members, subject to national security checks.
“Thousands of husbands, wives, partners and children of Australians have been waiting for years for partner and family visas, and others must now be eligible for refugee and humanitarian visas,” Senator Keneally said.
Data from the Department of Home Affairs shows Afghan citizens wait almost three times as long for visas as the global average – with prospective marriage visas more than doubling to 16.2 months over the past decade, and to 13.6 months for the provisional partner category.
Labor MP Julian Hill, whose Melbourne electorate of Bruce has one of the highest populations of Afghan-Australians in the nation, said “time was running out to save these lives”. “MPs are receiving desperate, heart-breaking requests for help from thousands of Australians with immediate family stuck in Afghanistan,” he said.
Nationals MP Darren Chester, who was Minister for Veterans’ Affairs up until two months ago, said a failure to help Afghan interpreters and other locally engaged staff wouldn’t just put them in danger – it would also adversely affect the long-term mental health of veterans who served in Afghanistan.
“The risk of ‘moral injury’ and future doubts about your service may be reduced by the knowledge that we did everything possible to help those who helped us,” Mr Chester said on Facebook. “Mental health conditions often present many years after traumatic events and are obviously difficult for the individual, and the treatment is costly for our nation.”
Since 2013, over 1800 Afghans who were engaged by Australian forces, and their eligible family members, have been granted Australian visas, including more than 570 over the past four months. More than 400 Afghans granted visas this year have settled in Australia.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.