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  • Afghan interpreter Liaqat Khan, pictured working for the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan (Supplied)
As the Australian government again commits more troops to Afghanistan, former Afghan interpreters to the Australian Defence Force, who are now resettled in Australia, are calling for the government to grant visas to all its Afghan interpreters. They argue that the interpreters' lives, and those of their families, are in danger after working for the Australian forces. SBS Pashto investigates.
English
By
Abdullah Alikhil

20 Jun 2017 - 7:03 AM  UPDATED 23 Jun 2017 - 11:27 AM

Six years ago Mohammad Naser Ahmadi was working as an interpreter for the Australian Operation Slipper in Afghanistan when he was shot by a member of the Afghan National Army. It was a moment he will never forget.

He survived. But one of his colleagues, a fellow Afghan interpreter, died during an ambush at Kandahar that also took the lives of three Australian officials Bryce Duffy, Ashley Birt and Luke Gavin, on 29th October 2011.

Mohammad Naser Ahmadi in Afghanistan, where he worked as an interpreter for the Australian Defence Force

Ramp ceremony for killed ADF troops
The ADF says Coalition and Afghan personnel have remembered three killed soldiers at a ceremony at Tarin Kot in Afghanistan, pledging to redouble efforts.
 
Mohammad Naser Ahmadi, 28, worked as an interpreter for the allies. His life changed after being ambushed while working for Australian forces in Kandahar.

"On October 29th, 2011, around eight in the morning, we went to the Afghan National Army camp,” Ahmadi tells SBS Pashto.

“When one of the Afghan commanders finished his speech, we were moving towards our work, and, suddenly, one of the militants wearing an Afghan National Army uniform opened fire on us.

“The first bullets hit us, and I was shot in the back and fell on the ground.

“I saw my fellow Afghan interpreter, who was shot dead and two others were injured."

Ahmadi explains, “It was a very painful incident. I didn't know what had happened.”

“Three Australian soldiers were killed as well."

The attack increased his concern for his parents. He had lost his brother while serving in the Afghan army only a year before.

“In fact, I was more concerned for my parents because before I was shot, my brother was killed while he was in the Afghan army,” says Ahmadi. “And my mother had gone through a very difficult time.”

“I didn’t want that to happen again.”

Listen to the full story on SBS Pashto Radio:

Ahmadi now lives in Australia after fleeing his homeland, fearing for his life.

"I didn't feel safe even in the capital Kabul,” says Ahmadi. “And my family also feared for their lives.”

“They still fear for their lives, because the Taliban will kill them if they are captured."

'They have given everything for Australia': The Afghans who helped the ADF
Around 800 Afghan nationals - employees of the Australian Defence Force their families - have been granted Australian visas since since 2013. But are they being given the support they deserve?

That is why he and other former Afghan interpreters are calling on Australia's government to facilitate, and accelerate, the migration process for the interpreters and their families.

“If Australia uses people like interpreters to help with the war effort it is our moral obligation to keep them safe” – Sen Jacqui Lambie

Other interpreters who served with Australian forces are still waiting to get a humanitarian visa; some of them have seen their visa submissions be rejected over and over again.

Senator Jacqui Lambie agrees that all Afghan locally engaged employees should be entitled to resettle in Australia. She tells SBS Pashto, “If Australia uses people like interpreters to help with the war effort it is our moral obligation to keep them safe.”

Greens Senator Nick McKim also supports this view: “There should be humanitarian resettlement and support offered to people who have put their lives at risk to help Australia in times of war.”

Australia increases troops in Afghanistan

With Australia increasing troops in Afghanistan, there are renewed concerns about the future of the Afghan interpreters that Australian forces will hire to operate on the ground.

This May the Australian Government agreed to increase the ADF ‘train, advise and assist’ mission in Afghanistan by 30 personnel, from 270 to approximately 300 people.

Afghan interpreters in Australia are asking the government to facilitate and accelerate the migration process of the interpreters –and their families- who are still in Afghanistan.

Australia to send 30 more troops to Afghanistan
The federal government has announced Australia will commit an extra 30 troops to Afghanisation.

They also say the humanitarian visa doesn’t provide the support they need to settle in Australia and they aim to receive the same benefits Australian veterans are entitled to.

The ADF’s contingent of 300 personnel is currently working in mentoring and advisory roles under ‘Operation Highroad’.

The Australian forces have been deployed to Afghanistan since the Coalition arrived in 2001, with the combat mission wrapping up in 2014.

The current mission - ‘Operation Highroad’ commenced in July 2014 and is the Australian contribution to NATO’s Resolute Support mission, which replaced the previous International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission.

Some 110 Afghan interpreters have played a key role during the war in Afghanistan, providing bridges between Australian forces and local communities.

“We would not have been able to complete our mission without these interpreters and they put themselves in significant risk by assisting coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

Jason Scanes is a retired captain of the Australian armed forces who worked in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012.

He believes Australia wouldn’t have been able to complete its mission without the support of Afghan interpreters.

“The Afghan interpreters’ contribution to our mission in Afghanistan was one that was absolutely critical,” Scanes tells SBS Pashto.

“We would not have been able to complete our mission without these interpreters and they put themselves in significant risk by assisting coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

On 13 December 2012, the Australian Government announced a policy to resettle locally-engaged Afghan employees in Australia - when they are at significant risk of harm due to their work with Australia’s mission in Afghanistan.

Now Mohammad lives in Australia and feels the support and benefits he receives as a former interpreter for the Australian Defence Forces, do not match the service he gave for the country.

Afghan interpreters resettled in Australia
The Australian government has resettled more than 500 Afghans who supported Australia's mission in the war-ravaged nation
 

According to the Australian Department of Defence, more than 790 Afghan nationals, including locally-engaged employees and their families, have now been granted visas to Australia under this policy.

But not all interpreters could make it to Australia.

“We are going on four years now and he is still waiting [for a visa]”

Australian retired captain, Jason Scanes has been campaigning to bring the interpreter who worked with him to Australia.

“I have assisted him to fill his application and that was back in 2013,” explains Scanes. “So we are going on four years now and he is still waiting.”

Afghans who helped Australians still waiting for visas
Some Afghans who worked with the Australian troops are nervously waiting to see if they're able to gain residency in Australia.

“I have spent several thousand dollars of my own money engaging professional services to refute the information that they are trying to use to discredit my interpreter from being accepted for a visa here in Australia.”

Some interpreters tell SBS Pashto that their close family members live in fear and ask the government to settle them in Australia.

In other cases, the motivation to move to Australia is employment, because back in Afghanistan, when an Afghan national is linked with someone who served with international forces, job opportunities disappear.

Mohammad Naser Ahmadi explains, “I didn't feel safe even in the capital Kabul and my family also feared for their lives. They still fear for their life because the Taliban will kill them if they are captured.”

Trying to bring a wider awareness to the issue, Captain Scanes started a Facebook page called Forsaken Fighters, and says there are many Afghan interpreters who have contacted him for help. 

“Since starting my Facebook page called Forsaken Fighters there have been a number of Afghan interpreters that have worked with Australian forces that have contacted me through the social-media site.”

“Some of them I have met while in Afghanistan, and I did work briefly with them and they are still there and they’re struggling.”

“The government well knows that these peoples' lives and the lives of their families have been put in danger directly because they have provided services as interpreters to the Australian forces”

Spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, Ian Rintoul, says the Australian government has a clear responsibility to protect Afghan interpreters and their families.

“The government well knows that these peoples' lives and the lives of their families have been put in danger directly because they have provided services as interpreters to the Australian forces,” says Rintoul. “So there is a very particular responsibility.”

"Because the fact that the Australian government has put their lives in danger is very, very clear.”

What do the politicians say?

Liberal: David Johnston

In 2014, then defence-minister, Senator David Johnston said in a statement that the locally engaged employees (LEE), including interpreters, were, indeed, assessed to be at risk of harm after providing critical support to the ADF and Australian Government agencies in Afghanistan.

Many of these employees were placed at significant risk of harm by insurgents in Afghanistan, due to the highly visible and dangerous nature of their employment.

However, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection explained to SBS in a written statement that, “Only persons who meet the definition of ‘member of the family unit’ (that is spouses, dependent children and other family members who are found to be dependent on the main applicant) are eligible for visa grant under this policy.”

It adds: “Applicants are made aware of this requirement when they lodge a visa application.”

Independent: Jacqui Lambie

Senator Jacqui Lambie, known for her advocacy in regard to veteran welfare, tells SBS she believes that “Immediate family members of an Afghan interpreter should benefit from the Humanitarian visa.”

She adds the caveat, “but I am not prepared to support the extension of the visa to other relatives without evidence these extended family members are in danger.”

Labor: Shayne Neumann

Tony Burke, who was the Labor Immigration minister when the Afghan interpreters first began coming to Australia in 2012, declined to comment on the issue.  

Shayne Neumann, the current shadow minister for Immigration and Border Protection tells SBS in a statement  “In 2012, Labor initiated a program for eligible locally engaged Afghan employees, such as interpreters, and their direct family members to apply for resettlement as part of Australia’s humanitarian program.”

“Any person who is granted a visa to resettle in Australia must be eligible for that visa and pass strict health, character and security checks.”

Should Afghan interpreters receive the same benefits as Veterans?

Mohammad Naser, who was injured in the 2011 ambush, is one of the hundreds of interpreters who have settled in Australia under the program. He says life in Australia is not what he expected.

“We were expecting to get the kind of benefits Australian soldiers receive after having fought in the front line and were killed or wounded,” says Naser.

He explains, “because we have also sacrificed while serving with Australian soldiers.”

Naser says that the support and benefits he receives do not match what he gave.

Former official in the Australian Forces Jason Scanes also wants more benefits for the interpreters.

“I think that these guys underwent tragic circumstances.”

“My personal view, I think that these guys need to be afforded a level of protection and a level of assistance that commensurate with the services they provided to our forces in Afghanistan,” says Scanes.

“And certainly I think that these guys underwent tragic circumstances.”

“I know my interpreter with me had seen some things that are not nice things to see.

“And they certainly haven’t been able to provide a level of care and service to those people when they arrived in Australia that should absolutely be afforded to them.”

Naser explains that he and many fellow interpreters are also asking the government to facilitate the migration process for their families who are still at risk in Afghanistan.

“The government is treating us like others coming on a boat, while we gave Australian soldiers sacrifices and have also lost our translators.”

Many of the Afghan interpreters SBS spoke to, say they see themselves not as refugees, but as veterans. Like the Australian forces, they served alongside them in the front line and put their own lives at risk.

Fraidoon Azizi is a young Afghan interpreter who managed a group of Afghan interpreters on ground operations in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2012. He says the benefits they’ve received are not enough to pay back for what they have done for Australian soldiers.

“The government is treating us like others coming on a boat, while we gave Australian soldiers sacrifices and have also lost our translators,” Azizi says.

He says they need help beyond just the visa situation so their families can re-join them.

“Our complaint and request is that the government should find a way to bring our families to Australia,” says Azizi. “We don’t have the kind of jobs that pay for the rent and other stuff and support our family back home as well; they should help us with affordable housing.”

Liaqat Khan, a 25-year-old Afghan national who worked with the ADF as an interpreter from 2009 to 2014 says the interpreters did receive support in Australia - but briefly.

“When we arrived in Australia we were given support for 28 days,” says Khan.  “After that we were referred to job seeking services but they haven’t helped us to find a job.”

“They should have sat with us and ask what do we want and they should have provided some job opportunities as well.”

“I also have psychological unrest because my family is left behind and they are in constant fear.”

Mohammad Naser Ahmadi works as painter but says his poor health and his concerns about his family back in Afghanistan are proving to be challenging without more help.

“I don’t have a proper job and I’m working as a painter,” he tells SBS.

“I feel tired while I’m working but I have no option as the Australian government hasn’t paid more attention to us.”

“I also have psychological unrest because my family is left behind and they are in constant fear.”

The petition  

One of the men who has made it to Australia is Raz Mohammad, who worked for 10 years as an interpreter and cultural adviser for the Australian forces in Afghanistan.

In 2016 he started an online petition on Change.org which has now gained over 18,000 signatures and has been sent to the Immigration minister Peter Dutton.

The petition’s call-to-action reads “don’t let interpreters and their families, siblings and parents die. Aussie soldiers relied on us - urgent visas are needed for ADF interpreters and their families left in danger, siblings and parents.”

Mr Mohammad says the threat against Afghan interpreters and their families is getting “more and more serious as the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse day by day.”

“We need to bring them to Australia before it gets too late.”

And Mr Mohammad also raises the other key issue to those former interpreters and employees who have reached Australia: the kinds of benefits they receive in their new land.

He claims to have met with most of the interpreters over the past year and a half and says they want the same benefits Australian veterans are entitled to.

They see themselves as veterans, not refugees.

What support can Interpreters access?

Afghan interpreters can access the same support as all new humanitarian entrants, who are eligible to a year of intensive settlement help through the Humanitarian Settlement Services program.

The government says humanitarian entrants can be referred to the Program of Assistance for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, administered by the Department of Health.

They are also eligible for services under the Complex Case Support program for up to five years after their arrival in Australia.

What support can Veterans access?

Among the benefits veterans can expect are home loans without interest, home insurance, rent insurance, a pension supplement, a veterans supplement and an energy supplement.

And there is a veterans pharmaceutical-reimbursement scheme, a lump-sum advance, financial hardship, a pension-loans scheme, an education-entry payment and a pension-bonus scheme.

The Defence Force income-support allowance bonus is available, too.

“I don't think they should be necessarily treated differently [from veterans]. I think all people who have arrived and were put in danger in some ways by the Australian government.”

Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, argues everyone affected in a conflict where Australia is taking part should receive the same kinds of benefits.

“I don't think they should be necessarily treated differently,” says Rintoul. “I think all people who have arrived and were put in danger in some ways by the Australian government; there is a particular responsibility to those people.”

Independent senator Jacqui Lambi, rejected the idea of treating Afghan interpreters as war veterans.

“I will not support the call to receive the same benefits as veterans,” says Lambie.

Nick McKim, the Greens immigration spokesman, did not address treating the interpreters as veterans but says they should be able to access more support than they can now.

“The Greens believe that they should receive extra benefits specific to their case, beyond the ones that are provided to humanitarian visa holders.”

“This should include covering all medical expenses related to their service, including psychological support.”

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