Australia

John Howard warns Australia is failing stranded Afghans after overwhelming demand for visas

Former prime minister John Howard has warned Australia is failing tens of thousands of Afghans waiting for humanitarian visas to be approved.
Members of the Afghan-Australian community have told SBS News family members awaiting visas are living in hiding from Taliban retribution while the department struggles to deal with a sizeable backlog in applications.
before their family had even received confirmation the department would look at his application.
“We have let those people down and we haven’t discharged that [moral] obligation. I felt very strongly about that,” Mr Howard told the National Press Club.
“It always haunted me that people who had remained loyal to the Australian embassy in Saigon were left behind at risk to their lives all those years ago.

“To the extent that either side of politics has not discharged that obligation, then I criticise them.”

Since the return of Taliban rule in August 2021, the Australian government has opened up 26,500 places for Afghans under the humanitarian visa program, to be administered over four years. There are also another 5,000 places available within the family visa program.
Priority is being given to Afghans who assisted Australian troops and agencies during the conflict as well as their families.
Last week, SBS News revealed some 211,122 Afghans have applied for an Australia visa.
Of those applications, just 57 per cent have been registered within the department.
As of July 31, some 5,929 visas have been granted according to the Department of Home Affairs.
At the time, Immigration Minister Andrew Giles described the backlog as “overwhelming” in an exclusive interview with SBS News.
“As you can imagine, each application has to be treated very, very seriously in the circumstances,” he said.

“I know that so many members of the Australian Afghan community not only be feeling a sense of anxiety, but are personally affected by what is going on in Afghanistan right now.”

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said the department is working to remedy the backlog, which she said had grown to more than one million visa applications under the former Coalition government.
“We’ve increased people in the processing team there significantly and we’re planning to do that again, in order to try to get people their answers that they need out of the visa system.” she told SBS News.

“When we arrived in office in May 2022 there were more than a million visa applications sitting in the system and no plan to work through these applications.”

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil. Source: AAP / MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

She acknowledged there was concern among the community about the safety of women looking to escape the country, given the restrictions imposed by the Taliban.

The nation’s democratically elected government was overrun by Taliban forces in August after Western forces began to withdraw from the region, leading to chaotic scenes in Kabul as thousands tried to flee on the last remaining evacuation flights.
Mr Howard oversaw the beginning of Australia’s involvement in the Afghanistan conflict in 2001.
Asked if Australia should have withdrawn from the country earlier, Mr Howard said he did not have any qualms about the handling of the conflict by subsequent governments.
He did criticise the 2020 Doha Agreement between the Taliban and the United States that enabled the exit of American forces.
“I thought the Trump administration got a very bad deal on that,” he said.
“They should have insisted on certain things as a precondition of withdrawal, they actually did it the other way around.”

Additional reporting: Anna Henderson

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