Lost in translation: resettling locally engaged Afghan staff

Recent media reports indicate that the Taliban have killed an Afghan man who had worked as an interpreter for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in Afghanistan. With the bulk of ADF personnel being withdrawn from Uruzgan, this provides a reminder of the dangers to Afghan nationals who have worked for Australian government agencies as locally engaged staff and again raises the question of what the Government is doing to assist.

What Australia should and could do for such people has been discussed for some time. As the withdrawal of Australian and other International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel drew near local interpreters spoke out about Taliban threats and some ADF officers expressed the hope that the ‘terps’ (as the ADF calls them) would be looked after. Initially there was little comment from the Department of Defence or the companies contracted by the Australian Government to employ interpreters.

In response to these concerns and the lack of any government announcement, in November 2012 the Australian Greens introduced the Migration Amendment (Special Protection Scheme for Afghan Coalition Employees) Bill 2012. This Bill sought to create a new Special Protection Visa for non-citizens who are ‘fleeing persecution in their home country as a result of assisting either the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Australian Embassy or a subcontractor for a Commonwealth defence agency operating in Afghanistan’. It proposed establishing 600 places annually, in addition to the usual humanitarian intake, for people who had assisted for a minimum of 12 months.

The Greens’ Bill went no further than a second reading speech but during December 2012 the Minister for Immigration and the Minister for Defence announced that the Government would offer resettlement in Australia to ‘eligible locally engaged Afghan employees at risk of harm due to their employment in support of Australia’s mission in Afghanistan’.

The Ministers stated that ‘locally engaged Afghan employees interested in resettling in Australia will firstly need to be assessed by their employing Australian agency against specific threat criteria’. They stated that this assessment would ‘consider the level of direct support the applicant has provided to Australia’s mission in Afghanistan as well as its public profile, location and the period of employment’. A person found to be eligible would have to apply for a humanitarian visa, but it was not made clear how long this would take or whether an immediate threat to an applicant might expedite the process. The man killed recently was said to have been awaiting resettlement to Australia.

In an interview earlier in 2013 the Minister for Defence noted that no one was guaranteed a visa and that normal security and health checks would be made. This was in keeping with a similar approach taken during 2008 with Iraqi nationals employed by the ADF during the Iraq war, 557 of whom were resettled in Australia.

The current Minister for Immigration has confirmed that the Abbott Government would be ‘continuing to progress the issue of humanitarian visas for Afghan interpreters and other locally engaged personnel who have offered crucial support to Australia's personnel serving in Afghanistan’. At Senate Estimates in November 2013, the Department of Immigration advised that there would be up to 800 places for locally engaged Afghan staff who were considered to be at risk.

A number of other ISAF countries are already operating special programs to resettle locally engaged Afghan staff.

Between 2009 and 2011 (when its combat forces were withdrawn) Canada offered ‘special immigration measures’ for Afghans who had worked with Canadian forces, although media reports suggest that many were denied visas for failing to meet the requirement of having worked for Canadian forces for a minimum of 12 months.

Also in 2009, the US established a program to provide 1500 ‘Special Immigrant Visas’ per year until 2014 for Afghan nationals who had assisted US forces. The US has similar arrangements in place for Iraqis who assisted US forces, although these are scheduled to end on 31 December 2013 and media reports suggest that relatively few visas have been granted.

The New Zealand Government has offered resettlement places to some Afghan nationals who had worked as interpreters with the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). The media reports that to date 39 people have been resettled.

During June 2013 the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence announced a £60 million package of measures to assist Afghans who had worked with UK forces. The package includes settlement in the UK for those people thought to be most at risk from reprisals from the Taliban (approximately 600) but also money for retraining, or direct cash payments. The UK’s program also requires a minimum of 12 months employment. Perhaps in response to criticism that the package was inadequate, a further intake was announced by the Immigration Minister in September 2013.

To date, there have been no announcements from the Australian Government that any resettlement visas have been offered to locally engaged Afghan staff.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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