Former Afghan interpreters and other colleagues left behind by the Australian government after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now face a high risk of brutal reprisals, a Senate inquiry has found.
A damning new consensus report said Australia had asked Afghan nationals to “stand in harm’s way with Australian personnel” but had “left them standing in harm’s way”.
“It is dishonourable,” said the inquiry’s interim report, which was written by the Labor chair, Kimberley Kitching, and not opposed by government members of the committee.
Australia’s last-ditch evacuation mission – launched on 18 August days after Kabul fell to the Taliban – lifted 4,168 people out of the Afghan capital over the course of nine days. Those carried on the 32 Australian flights included 167 Australian citizens and 2,984 Afghans with approved visas.
The report by the Senate’s foreign affairs, defence and trade references committee described this evacuation effort by Australian defence force personnel and other Australian officials as “immense and heroic” – expressing gratitude to those who had worked in dangerous and high-pressure conditions.
But the committee said it had also heard “distressing evidence about those who attempted to access the evacuation mission but were unsuccessful”.
It said there were process-related delays in the lead-up to the evacuation and “a large number of individuals and their families remain in Afghanistan at high risk of brutal reprisals from the Taliban because of their association with Australia”.
The report, published on Friday, said “loyalty to mates” was essential to the Australian ethos, and Australian policymakers “need to keep true to that ideal, lived every day by the heroes who risk everything to defend us”.
“There is an enduring duty of loyalty owed by Australia to the interpreters and other Afghans who risked their lives in the service of the Australian defence forces when they were in Afghanistan,” the report said.
“That loyalty was shown by the brave Australian men and women who served in Afghanistan. It must be shown by the government that sent them there.”
The report said there had been about 425 Afghan locally engaged employees (LEE) with visas or applications in process, in Afghanistan at the time of the evacuation operation in August.
While it was not known how many of these individuals managed to secure places in the Australian evacuation, the report said “a significant number of individuals” who had helped Australia were ultimately unable to secure a visa during the operation.
“Tragically, there have now been reports that some LEE applicants have been injured or killed by the Taliban, with others currently in hiding due to their association with Australia.”
The Senate committee said it saw evidence that, in July 2021, Defence “was still issuing rejection letters to LEE applicants due to technicalities (such as applicants not having applied within six months’ of ceasing employment) despite the dire security situation”.
The committee also cited evidence, as of 21 August, that some LEE applications were rejected by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade “due to its approach to the eligibility criteria relating to the private contractors”.
The report said there was no “recourse for these at-risk individuals other than joining the general humanitarian visa application process”.
It said that it was not until 22 August, five days into the Australian evacuation operation at Hamid Karzai international airport, that the government decided to consider emergency subclass 449 visas for those who had applied for the LEE program but were not certified.
Those delays meant that “many who were issued 449 visas were ultimately unable to access the Australian evacuation effort”.
“These issues resulted in the inevitable situation that a large number of individuals and their families remain in Afghanistan, at high risk of brutal reprisals from the Taliban because of their association with Australia.”
The report was also critical of how the government handled the extension of these emergency visas for people associated with the LEE program who were still in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan after the evacuation mission ended.
It says the Morrison government only announced extensions to those visas on 18 November, “the day before these visas were due to start expiring”.
The committee heard Defence was still processing 70 LEE certification applications as of late October. The committee urged the government to complete these as quickly as possible and in a favourable light, given the “likely impossibility” that such people would be able to remain safely in Afghanistan.
“There is no excuse for bureaucratic delays when lives are literally at stake,” the report said.
It said Australia’s obligations extended “beyond the moral imperative” to include “the vital national security interest of Australia” – because Australia needed to maintain a reputation for caring for those willing to help its personnel in future military engagements.
The report made eight recommendations, including that the government commission “a full and thorough review” of the Afghan employee visa program to “ensure that programs of this nature are improved”.
The government should also review how the Afghanistan evacuation was handled.
The references committee adopted the report by consensus. Its members include Labor’s Tim Ayres and Tony Sheldon, Liberals Eric Abetz and David Van, and independent Jacqui Lambie.
While there were no dissenting reports, the Greens added additional comments calling for Australia to expand its humanitarian intake.
The main report urged the government to “review its policies for pathways to permanent protection visas for Afghan asylum seekers and refugees currently in Australia, and prioritise family reunification when processing humanitarian visa claims from Afghan nationals”.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has previously insisted no one who arrived in Australia by boat would gain permanent resettlement.
The committee urged the government to publish a breakdown of the total cost of Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan across each year of its engagement, as well as a breakdown of costs across departments, including costs of support provided to veterans who served in the country. A final report is due in February.