Afghan nationals in Australia fear for loved ones in grim wait for split-family visas

The Guardian
Mon 5 Dec 2022
Wives, children and vulnerable parents have been left at mercy of Taliban as promises of swift family reunions fade

A daughter, born in the calamitous days of August last year, as the Taliban swept north to reimpose its brutal control, remains in Afghanistan.

Pictures and videos on Sahak’s phone show his little girl learning to crawl, speaking her first words, celebrating her first birthday. All of these he has missed.

Sahak was a journalist working for an international news agency when Afghanistan’s 20-year republican experiment came crashing down, the capital falling meekly back into the hands of the Taliban in a single morning.

His association with western media made him a target for the Taliban. He faced an immediate threat to his life, and was urged to flee, assured his family could soon follow him.

“I and a number of my fellow journalist colleagues that had shared a list of vulnerable staff members with the Australian government were assured swift family reunion visas after we were issued the humanitarian visas,” he says.

“But when we arrived in Brisbane in November [2021] we were asked to wait for our own permanent resident visas, and now it has been months since then but we have heard nothing back from the ministry … for our family visas.”

Sahak says he is unable to concentrate on improving his English, or building a career in Australia. He says the cost of living leaves little left over: every dollar he can scrape together, he sends home to his wife and children.

“I constantly remain under stress and keep thinking about the safety and wellbeing of my family members who are counting days,” he says.

Despite promises of a more benign rule, the Taliban are resolutely unreformed, and their rule of Afghanistan grows more oppressive daily.

Women and girls have had their rights savagely curtailed; ethnic and religious minorities are persecuted; and those who sided with the west or the former republican government have been ruthlessly targeted.

From the relative comfort of Australia, Sahak says he feels helpless.

“My wife and children are constantly changing addresses and hiding from the Taliban. They have been skipping one meal every day to make ends meet and hiding [at] home out of fear of the Taliban.

“It is getting very desperate for them and myself, we have become mental patients and whatever happens to us, we will hold the Australian government responsible for giving us false hope and promise.”

‘Everyone has a breaking point’

Sahak’s story is not unique. The Guardian is aware of dozens of Afghan nationals now living in Australia, grateful they were rescued, but frustrated and fearful they have not been able to reunite with their families.

A former Afghan parliamentary staff member, who cannot be named because of the risk to his family, says he has considered leaving Melbourne and returning to Kabul, such is his concern for those he was forced to leave behind.

“I can’t sleep at night and keep crying and praying during the day for my family stranded in Kabul. I am losing hope for life and often think about going back to face the death threat awaiting me in Afghanistan, because I cannot leave my wife and four young children.

“It has been a year since I have seen my wife and children and it is more frustrating and stressful for them because life is getting absolutely difficult with the brutal Taliban rule, poverty and harsh winter in Afghanistan.”

He says his family struggles daily in Kabul: he has no idea when he might see them again, and under what circumstances.

“My children are growing up and they need me. My wife too. As a woman under Taliban rule, she is unable to go out of the house alone for any needs of life for herself and the children, anything can happen to them.

“I request the Australian government to create a separate and fast-track system for split families.”

Another man, who can be identified only as SKK, fled Kabul after being directly threatened by the Taliban for his work alongside foreign journalists. He says he left without knowing he would be separated from his family for so long.

“The bureaucracy and the uncertainty is so grim and complicated that it can cost someone’s life in the saddening wait. I am trying to carve a new life in this lovely country, hanging in there in wait, but everyone has a breaking point.”

Most of the Afghan nationals evacuated to Australia arrived in the country on 449 visas. Most have since converted to permanent resident visas, and have been told it could take months to lodge a split-family visa, and several more months for a decision from the home affairs department. They could face years of separation.

Hundreds of people camped in a dusty field near Kabul airport in August 2021 as a US military plane takes off in the background
‘You called us brothers’: Afghans who fought with Australian troops still live in fear of Taliban

More than 170,000 Afghan nationals have applied for a humanitarian visa for Australia since 17 August 2021 – two days after the fall of Kabul.

The home affairs department has established a dedicated team to process “family stream” visa applications from Afghan nationals.

The department declined to comment directly on the situation of Afghans who fled Kabul last year.

“We give immediate family of people who have resettled under the humanitarian program highest priority,” the department’s website says.

Assessing the identity, relationship claims, health and security criteria in each application has been made more difficult since the fall of the democratically elected government in Afghanistan.

Since July last year, more than 2,400 first-stage partner and family migration visas have been granted to Afghan nationals. There are just over 8,000 first-stage partner and family migration visa applications onhand with the department.

Reshad Sadozai knew Australia. In his 20s, he studied in Brisbane on a scholarship, before returning to Kabul to work for the republican government.

In August 2021, he narrowly escaped the Taliban, but had to leave his homeland without his ageing parents or the young sister he cared for.

“As an Australian-educated individual with many years of experience of working with the western government in Afghanistan at key positions, I was under threat after the Taliban takeover.

“My parents are nearly 70 years old and need constant support and care. My sister alone cannot do it in Afghanistan where women are excluded from public life by the Taliban.”

His father suffers from chronic health issues, Sadozai says, and Afghanistan’s public health system remains in crisis.

“For him this winter without me in Kabul could be extremely dangerous. I understand there are many applications pending with the government, but one year’s wait is more than enough for a family reunion visa.”

Afghan nationals in Australia fear for loved ones in grim wait for split-family visas