Dfat bungle delayed visas for former Afghan embassy employees at risk from Taliban

A file number bungle by an Australian government department caused a four-week delay in helping some Afghan citizens at risk of retribution from the Taliban as the militant group swept to power in Afghanistan, Guardian Australia can reveal.

A freedom-of-information investigation reveals the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade prepared an urgent submission for the then minister Marise Payne asking for a decision about a group of former embassy employees within three days.

But nothing happened with these particular recommendations until after the Taliban had seized the capital city on 15 August 2021.

The delay is significant because Afghan citizens who had previously worked for Australian government agencies – such as interpreters, guards and administrative staff – required certification from the minister before their applications for humanitarian visas could be processed by the Department of Home Affairs.

Many feared that their history of working for Australia would place them at high risk of deadly retaliation from the Taliban.

The paperwork appeared to have gone missing because of a numbering error. The submission was marked MS21-100300 – an internal number that had already been used a previous time, leading some officials to believe it had already been dealt with.

The Dfat submission, dated 20 July 2021, “recommends certification decisions” by Payne regarding a number of Afghans who had applied since mid-May 2021. It was marked as urgent with action requested by 23 July – but it took four weeks for Payne to sign off on the recommendations.

The minister finally signed it on 17 August – two days after the resurgent Taliban had seized Kabul, significantly raising the stakes for former locally engaged employees who had worked for western forces.

When Payne signed off on the submission, a handwritten note was also added saying “duplication of sub. number has been raised with Dept”.

The precise recommendations and the number of people affected by the delay were blacked out in the FOI documents released to Guardian Australia.

A spokesperson for Payne said: “The then foreign minister’s office detected the Dfat error and took action within hours of determining that there were two different documents with the identical identification number.

“Errors in the preparation of documentation such as ministerial submissions are a matter for Dfat.”

But Dfat played down its role in the saga. A spokesperson for the department said: “The duplication of submission numbers had no bearing on the submission being sent to the Foreign Minister’s Office on 21 July.”

Sources with knowledge of the situation noted that staff were under significant pressure at that time, given the influx of applications and the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

It is believed that there was a discussion between the minister’s office and the department to try to work out what had happened with the submission. At first, the minister’s office had believed it had already dealt with the submission because a document with the same number had already been signed.

One conversation included checking the names of Afghan citizens that were listed on the new submission and the earlier submission of the same number and confirming that the lists were different.

Guardian Australia has been told that, once the mistake had become clear, the department sent the outstanding document to the minister’s office and the minister signed it shortly afterwards.

Glenn Kolomeitz, a director at GAP Veteran & Legal Services, who represented a range of former Afghan locally engaged employees seeking help to leave Afghanistan, was unimpressed by the revelation.

“Again, bureaucratic bungling has contributed to delays in clearing and evacuating our clients and that’s entirely unacceptable,” Kolomeitz said on Friday.

Dfat declined to say how many Afghan applicants were recommended for certification in the document, saying: “Certification details in the ministerial submission were redacted under Section 22 of the FOI Act.”

Some of this material was deemed to be out of scope of the FOI application, because Guardian Australia’s request had excluded briefings on specific individual cases and personal details of applicants.

The misplaced brief was not the only recommendation relating to locally engaged staff that went to Payne’s office in the four months to August 2021. There were at least eight certification-related submissions for signing in that period, most of which were dealt with quickly.

Even if the misplaced brief was signed immediately, it still may have taken time for the affected people to obtain Australian visas, given that the Department of Home Affairs would process applications after Dfat gave the certification.

Events rapidly took over. During the nearly two-week military-led evacuation mission in late August, the Australian government began handing out a large number of emergency visas as the priority had become rapidly getting people with any possible connection to Australia out of the country.

A briefing for Payne – dated 10 July 2021 – said the number of applications to Dfat was “likely to increase” as hundreds of people had made inquiries following the closure of the Australian embassy in Kabul in May.

The foreign affairs minister must certify that the staff member is employed by Dfat or has been within six months of applying for certification “and is at significant individual risk of harm due to their employment with the embassy”.

But the minister had the power to waive the six-month rule “in exceptional circumstances”.

Payne received a further submission on 16 August that recommended further decisions. This submission – signed immediately – said it covered “applications received since 15 May who have presented weak cases for certification”.

The documents also reveal that Payne’s office requested Dfat review cases of people who had been refused certification for the Afghan program between January 2013 and May 2021. Some of these “could be considered under ‘exceptional circumstances’”, a Dfat official wrote.

Kolomeitz said the locally engaged employee program “was applied very rigidly and inflexibly by both Dfat and Defence but more so by Dfat in terms of the timeframe for application but also who qualified”.

He said some former embassy guards who were contractors gained certification but others did not. Just this week, Kolomeitz said, one of his clients had finally received certification as a locally engaged employee from Dfat.

He said the slow processing of locally engaged employee applications “over years came to a head as the Taliban advanced on Kabul” when the government faced “enormous pressure from us and others” to act urgently.

An undated document, which contained Dfat talking points, said some locally engaged staff had “received threats in the form of ‘night letters’ over a long period of time – we do not doubt the seriousness of their situation”.

The 94-page bundle of Dfat documents is the latest to be released as part of an FOI investigation into how multiple government departments handled the Afghan visa scheme in the critical four months to August 2021.

Home affairs documents showed the Australian government was warned in mid-July 2021 – about five weeks before the fall of Kabul – that the worsening security situation in Afghanistan and Covid restrictions were making it “extremely difficult” to help former Afghan employees escape the country.

The Department of Defence also advised the then defence minister Peter Dutton to help fast-track visas for 11 Afghan army officers who studied at Australian defence colleges as they were “of high profile and at considerable risk” of Taliban retribution.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet declined to release any advice or briefings provided to the then prime minister Scott Morrison about the Afghan visa scheme, citing the cabinet documents exemption to FOI laws.

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