Afghan women’s rights defenders who have fled the Taliban’s rule say they are at risk of imminent return to Afghanistan by Pakistani authorities, prompting calls for the Australian government to step in and expedite their protection visas.
The federal government has received more than 215,000 humanitarian visa requests from Afghan nationals since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, granting 15,852 visas so far as of December 2023.
More than 30,000 of those hoping for a ticket to Australia, however, reside in Pakistan, where local authorities are undertaking a mass deportation of Afghans back to Taliban rule.
With just 26,500 places for Afghan nationals in Australia through to 2026, a home affairs department spokesperson said it was prioritising “vulnerable cohorts within refugee populations”.
But the uncertainty, and absence of updates, weighs heavy on women’s rights defenders and their families, who fear being jailed or killed if they are returned to Afghanistan.
Soroya Rahmat, once a law professor in Kabul who ran a pro-bono legal clinic for women experiencing domestic violence, said she was under threat of being returned to Afghanistan within weeks because her authorisation to remain in the country was going to expire.
She said after the Taliban threatened her, her husband and their three young children, the family spent six months moving houses, hiding with friends and family, and wearing disguises before eventually fleeing to Pakistan in the middle of the night.
Life in Pakistan, however, hasn’t been easy or safe. Rahmat said she and her family lived in constant fear of being discovered by the Taliban and punished for her work supporting women before they returned to power.
More than two-and-a-half years after she applied for an Australia visa, Rahmat, who turns 44 next month, said she was losing hope she would get an outcome in time.
“We don’t have a normal life here,” she told Guardian Australia.
“We suffer many dangers here … and the Australian government don’t pay attention, [they] don’t care … it’s painful for us.”
Rahila Askari, 23, said she had faced similar threats of deportation from Pakistan back to the Taliban-controlled country she calls home.
Having co-founded the Afghanistan chapter of women’s leadership advocacy group, Girl Up, and been outspoken against the Taliban as a student at Kabul University, she said she feared being locked up and tortured as some of her peers had.
One of those peers is Parisa Azada, a friend and former classmate of Askari’s. Azada was reportedly arrested and detained for printing protest banners in Dasht-e-Barchi by the Taliban in November.
Askari stayed in Afghanistan for more than two years under Taliban rule, running a hidden home school to teach young girls to speak English. She left for Pakistan in November 2023 as the threats for her safety worsened.
The Pakistani authorities have warned Askari her visa will expire at the end of the month, possibly forcing her back to the border office at Torkham, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where she fears being arrested by the Taliban.
“If I go [to Torkham], it will be the last time that I see this blue sky or my family because it’s not possible to come back from there,” she said.
Askari is awaiting an outcome for the Australian protection visa she applied for in April 2023.
Pakistan’s crackdown on undocumented foreigns is believed to affect about 2 million Afghans in the country. At least 200,000 Afghans had been removed as of early November.
The federal government has said it considers the plight of Afghan nationals awaiting an Australia protection visa outcome and facing the prospect of deportation back to Afghanistan a “high priority” matter.
Susan Hutchinson, the founder of women’s rights defenders advocacy group Azadi-e Zan, said her attempts to bring the urgent cases of these women to the government had been ignored.
Hutchinson, who has written directly to the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, and the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said the federal government was not prioritising women such as Rahmat and Askari who are in need of urgent help.
Priority is given, according to the department’s website, to those who worked as locally engaged employees before the Taliban’s rule, as well as their families. Women and girls, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ people and other identified minority groups are also given processing priority.
“These are people who have been nominated by Australian organisations … or they have longstanding relationships with Australians,” she said.
“But the government continues to ignore my requests to communicate about their case.”
A total of 15,852 humanitarian visas have been granted to Afghan nationals since the fall of Kabul, with 3,026 of those granted in the five months to December 2023.
More than 50,000 protection visa requests, however, have been rejected.
Australia only accepts applications from those in Pakistan and Iran, and considers UNHCR-referred Afghan applicants in Turkey, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Any applications made from Afghanistan will be refused, the department’s website says.
A department spokesperson said: “A total of 20,000 places in Australia’s 2023-24 humanitarian program will ensure that we can provide permanent resettlement to those most in need from around the world, and protection in Australia to those who require it.
“The 2023-24 Humanitarian Program intake is the highest the core intake has been since 2012-2013, ensuring we can continue to support commitments to the Afghan community.”
The immigration minister, Andrew Giles, declined to comment, instead directing questions to the department.