From Vietnam to Afghanistan: humanitarian visas for staff assisting Australian forces

With the news that Australia has recently withdrawn the last of its troops from Afghanistan, attention has turned to the fate of Afghans who have worked with foreign forces. There is growing concern that these people are at risk of persecution from the Taliban, as it seeks to reassert control across Afghanistan. The Australian Government is granting humanitarian visas to Afghans who are at risk due to their work assisting Australian forces, but is facing increasing pressure, including from the Opposition and former soldiers, to move more quickly as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates.

This is not the first time Australia has offered sanctuary to local staff who have assisted Australian forces in conflict situations, nor the first time it has been criticised for not doing enough.


When the Australian embassy in South Vietnam was evacuated in the days before the fall of Saigon in 1975, just one locally engaged embassy employee, and some of his family members, were included in the evacuation (p.21). This was despite the fact that 24 people had been approved for entry to Australia on the basis of ‘long and close association with the Australian presence in Vietnam and whose lives were considered to be in danger’ (p. 18).

The Report of a 1976 Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade inquiry into the Vietnamese ‘refugee problem’ criticised the Australian Government’s handling of the evacuation of Vietnamese citizens from Saigon, and asserted that:

Whether the Australian Government’s former military involvement in Vietnam was right or wrong, we believe that by being in Vietnam Australia incurred a residual responsibility, not to mention a moral responsibility, to assist in the evacuation from Vietnam of those who had assisted our forces there and whose lives were believed to be in danger because of this assistance (p. 24).

The Committee heard evidence that many former embassy employees did not even apply to come to Australia because they were told there was no point in doing so, as they would not be granted permission to leave Vietnam.


Several decades later, a program offering humanitarian visas for locally engaged employees (LEEs) who had assisted Australian troops in Iraq from 2003 onwards was announced by the Rudd Government in April 2008. This was, according to then Immigration Minister Chris Evans, ‘based in part on our experience in Vietnam and what was I think an understanding that perhaps we did not do the right thing when we left in terms of a lot of the people who provided assistance to us’. The announcement stated that the policy ‘will apply only to LEEs and their families specifically designated by the Government as eligible for a humanitarian visa under the new policy and it is anticipated that up to 600 visas will be granted’.

Those eligible included staff who had been employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Australian embassy in Iraq, as well as those who had worked with the Australian Defence Forces. Eligibility criteria were set out in legislative instrument IMMI 08/016, made on 2 April 2008, and amended slightly by instrument IMMI 09/027 which commenced on 15 May 2009.

The 600 places available under this program were additional to the annual quota for the Humanitarian Program. Ultimately, slightly fewer than 600 visas were granted over four years.

Year Visas granted 
2007-08 301
2008-09 203
2009-10 41
2010-11 18
Total 563

Source: Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Annual Reports for 2008–09, 2009–10 and 2010–11.


A program offering humanitarian visas to Afghans who had assisted Australia’s mission in Afghanistan, and were consequently at risk of harm, was announced by the Gillard Government in December 2012:

Under this policy, locally engaged Afghan employees interested in resettling in Australia will firstly need to be assessed by their employing Australian agency against specific threat criteria. This will 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.

Relevant Australian agencies include Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, AusAID and the Australian Federal Police. These agencies have employed locally engaged Afghan employees in a range of roles including interpreters and drivers. If certified as eligible by the relevant Australian agency, the locally engaged Afghan employees will then be able to make an application for a visa under Australia’s Humanitarian Program. They will be required to meet the standard visa criteria including health, character and security requirements.

This announcement followed calls from some in the Australian defence community for assistance for their Afghan interpreters as Australia prepared to draw down its troops, and the introduction in November 2012, by the Australian Greens, of a Private Member’s Bill which sought to offer such assistance.

Up to 800 places were initially made available under the program, to be counted within the 2013–14 Humanitarian Program quota of 13,750. The eligibility criteria are set out in legislative instrument IMMI 12/127 which commenced on 1 January 2013, and remains in effect. Eligible Afghan nationals may be granted either a Refugee (subclass 200) visa or an In-country special humanitarian (subclass 201) visa.

As at October 2014 around 600 Afghan nationals had been resettled in Australia under this program. However, visas grants continued beyond the initial commitment for 2013–14. Defence Minister Peter Dutton stated on 12 July 2021 that visas granted since 2012 now numbered around 1,480, of which around 300 had been granted since April 2021. Visa grants under this program continue to be counted within the annual Humanitarian Program quota (currently 13,750).

There is concern amongst veterans that processing is moving too slowly, and that time is running out for eligible Afghans now that Australian forces have left, and Australia’s embassy has closed. The Government has also faced criticism over claims that some applicants have been refused because they worked as contractors, rather than as direct employees. The eligibility criteria (which have been in place since the program began in January 2013) refer to persons ‘employed with’ specified Australian Government agencies in Afghanistan.

The US is reportedly planning to airlift out thousands of Afghans who have assisted their forces, via special evacuation flights. Recent reports suggest that Australia may yet do the same. 


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

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