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'Bird set free': Afghans who served with the ADF and their families prepare for flight to Australia

Source: AAP

Exclusive: Dozens of Afghans who worked alongside the ADF and their families are preparing to evacuate to Australia in the coming weeks, in what appears to be an acceleration of visa approvals from the federal government.

With Australian forces preparing to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan in September, speculation is mounting about whether the federal government will prioritise the evacuation of locally engaged employees (LEEs) who served alongside Australian forces.

In early June, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne told a Senate committee the assessment of humanitarian visas for Afghan employees will follow the process that has been in place since 2013

The comments come amid calls for the process to be fast-tracked ahead of the troop withdrawal, and as threats by the Taliban towards interpreters and their families continue to escalate.

SBS News: Australia says it is working 'urgently' to help Afghan interpreters placed on Taliban kill list

From correspondence with interpreters and immigration officials in Afghanistan, SBS Dari understands that more than 40 Afghans who worked alongside the ADF have received Australian visas over the past few months and many are set to be evacuated between June 20 and 30.

It’s understood that family members of these LEEs are also part of this intake and are not accounted for in the cohort mentioned. 

'I will become a doctor'

Nas* worked alongside Australian forces at the Camp Qargha training facility in Kabul for more than two years.  

After receiving certification of his service, he lodged an Australian Subclass 201 refugee visa application for himself and his family in 2020, and it was approved in May 2021. 

Despite the successful application, Nas continues to hold fears that the Taliban will target him and his family.

“At the moment, when we go outside, we obviously feel threatened because the issue of foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is a great concern in our country.

In cases when it's not necessary, we do not leave home at all and we feel very threatened.

He said the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which works with the federal government in the relocation of LEEs from this conflict, has alerted the family that their flight to Australia will be in the next two weeks. 

“They were asking for confirmation if it's okay [for us] to fly between the 20th and 30th of June. We told them 'yes', even though it's better to travel before that because security is not good here, we feel threatened and unless it is not necessary, we will not leave the house.”   

Nas said he “felt very happy” upon hearing news of his family’s flight.  

“[I’m happy because] we are going to a place where we will have freedom and we can continue to have a life without any security threat and anxiety.”

He will be joined by his wife and children, who are “already thinking about their future in Australia”.  

“One of [my children] says, ‘I will become a doctor [in Australia], the other says ‘I will become an engineer’ and 'we will have a good future there'. They say that this way we will serve both our family and our new country, Australia.”   

'Their lives are in danger'

Ali* worked as an interpreter alongside Australian forces in the Uruzgan province from 2010 to 2011. 

After applying for Australian visas for himself, his wife and two children in 2015, he received an approval notice in April 2021. 

Ali said he has also received a call from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) about a flight between June 20 and 30, and a contact person from that group explained the process going forward.

“[The contact person said] Afghans will be quarantined [in Australia] and after 14 days of quarantine, they need to do a COVID-19 test and if it's negative then they can go to any of these three cities: Perth, Newcastle and Brisbane," Ali explained.

“The Australian government will book the tickets for them and they will be transferred there.” 

Ali said he’s “counting down the days” until his family can board the plane, though he's calling on the Australian government to work “more urgently” to grant visas to Afghans who are still waiting.

“Believe me, I am very happy, I am very pleased with this action of the Australian government. I also request [from the government] to process the cases of people who are still waiting because the situation is very bad, and especially for us. 

The situation is not only bad for us, but it is also bad for our families, their lives are in danger.

He said his children were “extremely excited” and could not go to bed when they received confirmation of their flight to Australia.  

“My sons were very happy, and they did not go to bed until 3am. I asked them to go to bed but they denied it and said 'we have a flight to Australia'.”  

Ali said he has been concerned for the safety of his children in Kabul for a number of years and has removed them from school due to the kidnapping threat.

“I have said before that several children have been abducted near our house. 

“So far seven to eight children have been abducted from here which is why we cannot let our children go to school or go outside.” 

SBS News: Australia must avoid 'catastrophic moral failure' and evacuate Afghan interpreters

'I felt a sense of freedom'

Abdul* worked alongside Australian forces as an interpreter and cultural adviser in Uruzgan and Kandahar between 2010 and 2014.

After applying for an Australian subclass 201 refugee visa in 2014, it was granted in late May 2021.  

He’s excited for his flight to Australia in the next few weeks, comparing it to being a "bird set free".

“Imagine about the time when you release a bird from a cage. [The IOM call] was the best and happiest call for me, when I heard the flight will be between the 20th and 30th of June. I felt a sense of freedom.  

The situation is not normal here. Yesterday, a person was shot in front of his house, near my residential place and now he is in the hospital and in a critical condition.

“The security situation is very bad here, especially for the interpreters. We are faced with a threat, we cannot live and they think that we are the same as foreigners and they say that it is permitted to kill the people who work for foreigners.”

SBS Dari has contacted the Department of Home Affairs to verify these details but has not received responses.

A Home Affairs spokesperson in late may told this outlet that Australia has resettled more than 1200 LEEs from Afghanistan since 2013 and that it is "urgently processing the on-hand Afghan caseload". 

* Not their real names. Names changed due to safety concerns.