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Albanese Government Accused of Abandoning Visa Processing for People in Afghanistan

The Albanese government has quietly abandoned processing refugee applications for potentially thousands of people trapped in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

The Department of Home Affairs has stated that anyone in Afghanistan it does not consider a “priority” will have their applications refused. It says it cannot carry out background checks since the hardline Islamist group reclaimed the country in August 2021.

The decision means thousands of Afghans currently trapped are now faced with the option of remaining, or taking a dangerous trip across the border as the Taliban heavily restricts attempts to leave.

SBS News asked the government when this decision was made and did not receive a response.

A leading immigration lawyer says Labor is “wiping its hands … of the Afghan problem”, even for those who do manage to escape, warning it is refusing to expand testing to expedite the process.

A white man in a suit smiles while sitting in parliament

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles. Source: AAP / Mick Tsikas

The Home Affairs website states that there are no facilities capable of carrying out biometric tests – which confirm an applicant’s identity and background – or conducting visa interviews in Afghanistan.

“To ensure that resettlement is provided in a timely manner to those most in need, and to reduce uncertainty for those awaiting the outcome of their application, applications that do not fall within the [humanitarian] program’s priorities for the Afghan caseload, including from applicants who remain in Afghanistan, will be refused,” it says.

Priorities are listed as locally-engaged employees (LEEs), their partners and children aged under 18, along with women and girls, ethnic minorities, LGBTIQ+ and other identified minority groups.

Military lawyer Glenn Kolomeitz, who has helped evacuate hundreds of former Afghan allies, confirmed he had been informed by Home Affairs officials that they would not consider applications from within Afghanistan.

“Your applications will not even be processed, will not even be looked at, because Australia can’t do the biometric testing in Afghanistan. We questioned that, and the response was: ‘That’s it. That’s the policy as it stands,'” he told SBS News.

The revelation comes after SBS Pashto revealed one of its former journalists, who was waiting on her refugee visa to be processed, drowned in a boat tragedy off the coast of Italy, after making a desperate attempt to flee Afghanistan following months of delays in her visa application.

‘Consider the risks’

Home Affairs previously told SBS News that 31,500 Afghan nationals will be resettled, though did not clarify how many of those were already outside Afghanistan.

A spokesperson said a total global humanitarian intake of 17,875 over 2022-23 would “ensure we can provide permanent resettlement to those most in need, and provide appropriate support for the travel and resettlement of refugees and others requiring Australia’s protection”.

“We will continue to closely monitor the situation in Afghanistan, and remain conscious of the particular needs of vulnerable cohorts,” they said.

“Australia’s Humanitarian Program intake has been drawn from a range of nationalities, ethnic and religious groups, reflecting global displacement arising from conflict and persecution. The Program operates flexibly to respond effectively to evolving humanitarian emergencies, such as Afghanistan, and global resettlement needs.”

Child holds a scarf in his mother's hair as the father embraces her under a plane wing.

Australia did biometric testing in Dubai just after the fall of Kabul, but has since stopped. Credit: Supplied: Department of Defence

Home Affairs’ website also urges anyone considering leaving Afghanistan to “carefully consider the risks should they attempt to leave by any route”.

But Mr Kolomeitz said even attempts to resettle those who did make it out had been limited.

His team has been working to help a number of LEEs – including Afghan interpreters and generals who aided Australian troops – to come to Australia.

DFAT officials told Senate estimates in February that six LEEs were currently awaiting processing, including two in Pakistan and one in Turkey. At that stage, three others had been granted visas but were yet to travel from Pakistan.

Crucially, they revealed three LEEs remain in Afghanistan, where Home Affairs says biometric testing cannot be carried out. Mr Kolomeitz said that Mr Giles had the authority to grant that group emergency 449 visas, allowing them to enter Australia regardless.

“[Background checks are] a legitimate security issue for Australia and we absolutely get that, but we’ve had these people as clients for years now. We have all of their documentation. They’ve had to destroy a lot of their documentation, [but] we have copies of it,” he said.

“I think the government has all but wiped its hands of what [it] would call the Afghan problem … the Afghans who worked for us. The current government has walked away from that.”

A small group of men holding guns outside.

The Taliban has restricted attempts to leave Afghanistan. Source: Getty / Hector Retamal / AFP

Mr Kolomeitz said his team had helped clients escape Afghanistan legally – with passports, Afghan identification cards, and visas to third countries – but some remained in danger in Pakistan, where the Taliban has a significant presence.

They also faced the threat of being returned to Afghanistan when their short-term visas in third countries expired, he said.

“They make their way there not knowing how long they’re going to be there, and whether they’re ever actually going to get an Australian visa from there,” he said.

“So it’s still a very, very tenuous position for these families.”

‘Highest processing priority’

A government spokesperson said: “Certified LEEs and their immediate family members continue to receive the highest processing priority within the Humanitarian Program places for Afghan nationals”.

Australia used a biometrics centre at Dubai’s Al-Minhad Airport in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul, and Home Affairs insists the site remains active, with people able to book an appointment for the following day.

The US, Canada, and various European countries continue to conduct the tests in Gulf states, in a bid to expedite the resettlement of Afghan asylum seekers. Direct flights from Kabul to Dubai are still available.

Policeman looks at a wall riddled with bullet holes.

The Taliban remains a dangerous presence in Pakistan, where it carried out an attack on a police compound just last month. Source: Getty / Asif Hassan / AFP

Mr Kolomeitz said he had “heard of no Afghan” whose tests had been conducted by Australian in Dubai since the immediate aftermath.

“If there’s a backlog [in third countries], why not use these sites that are allegedly there?” he asked.

Mr Kolomeitz said there was “no reason” the government could not revive its testing to the levels they were in after the fall of Kabul.

“They could very easily honour [our] obligations, and get people back on the ground in the Middle East to do that job,” he said.

Source : SBSNews