Tue 5 Apr 2022
Senate inquiry calls on government to reinstate 1,398 lapsed humanitarian visas originally granted after Taliban takeover
Nearly 1,400 people in Afghanistan who were issued with emergency visas but never made it to Australia have had those approvals lapse, a Senate inquiry has revealed.
A unanimous committee report on Tuesday warned that the “tragic” situation in Afghanistan “continues to worsen” since the Taliban took over in August, and said thousands of applicants for Australian humanitarian visas had been left in the dark about progress.
The Department of Home Affairs must “urgently improve its processes and communication in relation to Afghan visa applicants”, said the report by the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee.
The report also called on the department to ensure help for people fleeing the war in Ukraine does “not come at the cost of slowing the processing of applications from the Afghan intake”, saying resources must increase to deal with both crises urgently.
The committee that investigated Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan published its final report on Tuesday. It is understood the drafting was largely finished before the chair, Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, died suddenly last month.
The report, which now appears in the name of the deputy chair, Liberal senator Eric Abetz, includes stark findings about emergency visas issued at the height of the evacuation operation from Afghanistan last August.
These visas – known as subclass 449 visas – were granted so that people could quickly flee Afghanistan but they were only valid for three months.
Australia’s last-ditch evacuation mission – launched in the days after Kabul fell to the Taliban – lifted 4,168 people out of the Afghan capital over the course of nine days. But many with permission to come to Australia were left behind.
The government decided in November to extend the short-term visas only for those who had either already arrived in Australia or those who remained overseas but had links to the program for Afghan locally engaged employees (such as interpreters and guards).
“When asked how many people have had their subclass 499 visa lapse without being renewed, the home affairs department advised that, as at 31 December 2021, a total of 1,520 subclass 449 visas granted to evacuees from Afghanistan have ceased,” the committee report said.
The majority – 1,398 – were people “who never entered Australia”. There were also 53 who were in Australia who held a different visa, and 69 who were in Australia temporarily before reaching New Zealand.
The Senate report said these 1,398 individuals, who were deemed worthy of evacuation to Australia but were not successful in travelling to the country, had “lost the ability to travel to Australia on an emergency visa”.
That meant they “must lodge applications in other general visa categories, all of which are associated with lengthy wait times”.
The committee called on the government to reinstate these emergency visas “for all individuals remaining outside of Australia who were initially issued these visas during the evacuation”.
The Senate committee welcomed the government’s budget announcement last week that it would offer an additional 16,500 humanitarian places for Afghan nationals over the next four years. Those places are on top of the existing intake.
But the committee said delays had left “thousands of applicants unsure as to whether any progress has been made on their applications”.
In total, about 6,500 people have successfully reached Australia from Afghanistan since 18 August, including by commercial flights.
The Department of Home Affairs revealed in January that it had more than 32,500 applications for humanitarian program visas from Afghan nationals “on hand”, representing about 144,000 people, because some applications are for family groups.
“Despite Home Affairs initially telling the committee in November 2021 that it was aiming to provide initial receipts for all Afghan humanitarian visa applications by the end of 2021, the department subsequently told the committee that over 23,000 of these applications were still yet to be registered as at 5 January 2022,” the report said.
The six recommendations in Tuesday’s report include a call for the department to “urgently improve its processes and communication in relation to Afghan visa applicants”.
That should include urgently sending acknowledgments to all visa applicants, and publishing more detailed criteria and guidance about how humanitarian visas for the Afghan cohort will be prioritised, together with the expected average timeframes.
It also said Australia should issue additional visas as necessary “to overseas split family members of evacuees in Australia, to ensure family unity is preserved in permanent visa applications”.
The Department of Home Affairs has maintained that applications are “acknowledged in writing and processed as quickly as possible”. Officials told the committee the department did not have a physical presence in Afghanistan and “visa processing presents significant challenges and security concerns”.
More broadly, the committee recommended the Australian government give ongoing, targeted funding to assist the people of Afghanistan as the situation continues to worsen. That “may need to increase in response to the scale of increased need”.
“However, importantly, any approach taken must also emphasise the clear international expectation that the Taliban do not interfere with the provision of aid to the people of Afghanistan,” the report said.
At the beginning of the report, Abetz wrote that he and the other committee members wished to acknowledge Kitching’s “outstanding work” in overseeing the inquiry and they were deeply shocked and saddened at her death.
“Senator Kitching played a significant role as … chair, including overseeing this inquiry and the production of this report right up until the final draft prepared for the Committee’s consideration,” he wrote.
“Following her sudden passing, other committee members have taken over the last phase of the inquiry to present this final report to the Senate.”