The Australian government was warned in mid-July that the worsening security situation in Afghanistan and Covid restrictions were making it “extremely difficult” to help former Afghan employees escape the country, previously secret documents reveal.
At least five weeks before the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban in mid-August, government officials predicted more people would seek to flee the country and they were discussing the possibility of chartering direct flights from Kabul to Australia.
Guardian Australia can also reveal the governor general, David Hurley, sought a private briefing from the immigration minister in July about the program to assist former Afghan colleagues – as the government was facing increasing public criticism about its handling of the longstanding scheme.
Documents obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information (FOI) laws reveal a charter flight option was initially “considered a high risk”, even though officials also warned on 12 July that commercial flight options “will become very limited”.
Later in July, officials began making more concrete arrangements for a charter flight, amid concerns pandemic border rules were slowing arrivals of Afghan nationals to Australia in the weeks leading up to the Taliban’s takeover.
The revelations will add to the concerns of critics who say the Australian government was too slow to help Afghan nationals as it pulled its troops and diplomats out of Afghanistan, culminating in the emergency military-led evacuation effort in the final fortnight of August.
“It’s one of the most tragic examples of this government doing too little, too late,” Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said.
The immigration minister, Alex Hawke, was briefed on 12 July about the visa program to settle Afghan nationals who previously worked alongside Australian troops and diplomats.
These former colleagues, including interpreters and security guards, are known as locally engaged employees (LEEs) and feared Taliban retribution for working with Australia.
The home affairs department said at the time there were “ongoing challenges to the processing of humanitarian program applications, including Afghan LEE applications”.
Those challenges included “continuing restrictions on the department’s offshore activities and those of our partner agencies due to Covid-19, for example an inability to conduct medical assessments”.
“This, combined with the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, makes it extremely difficult to not only process visas but uplift people from Kabul,” the 12 July ministerial submission to Hawke said.
The same document raised concerns about the impact of a move by the United Arab Emirates on 11 July to “suspend arriving and transiting passengers from Afghanistan”.
“With the suspension of flights to the UAE, commercial flights will become very limited,” the submission said.
“The department has discussed the possibility of charters from Kabul directly to Australia with Dfat and Defence; however, noting the security situation, this is considered a high risk.”
The same document said it was “highly likely that as the security situation deteriorates people will seek to leave Afghanistan and cross the border into other countries where they may seek resettlement and engage with UNHCR”.
Hawke was briefed on rigidities in the existing LEE scheme, including that relatives are “often refused as they are not found to be dependent on the primary applicant”. A single parent of an Afghan employee was eligible but married parents were not.
The government was considering options to broaden the eligibility for the LEE scheme, with officials noting former employees were attracting “significant support from advocate groups including former Defence personnel”.
Home affairs officials said an increased intake “should be manageable within the current budget”, but also warned of increased security risks if the pool was widened.
“If the cohort is expanded, the security risk would increase and therefore a deeper investigation would be required to ensure that visa applicants satisfy security and character requirements,” the 12 July document said.
Ten days later, Hawke received another brief from home affairs to prepare him for a meeting with the governor general.
Hurley, who serves as the Queen’s representative in Australia but is a former defence force chief, requested a briefing about the Afghan LEE program. Hawke briefed him on 23 July.
“The governor general sought the briefing because of his interest in the program and professional connection to Australia’s mission in Afghanistan,” a spokesperson for Hurley told Guardian Australia. “He was grateful to the minister and government for the briefing.”
At the time of the briefing, Australia had granted more than 1,600 visas to Afghan LEEs and their family members since the program began in 2013, and there were a further 76 applications on hand – covering 369 people.
But home affairs told Hawke the “main visa processing impediment” was that most of these people were awaiting mandatory health examinations by the International Organisation for Migration in Kabul.
The same document added: “The ministers for Defence and foreign affairs need to finalise any additional certifications as soon as possible to enable the LEE to lodge visa applications in a timely fashion so that home affairs officers in Amman can finalise the visa processing.”
That is because the program requires the employing minister to certify the applicant is at significant individual risk of harm because of their support to the Australian mission in Afghanistan, before home affairs formally issues the visa.
As of 22 July, Defence and home affairs expected a further 49 former employees to be certified, meaning an extra 250 visa applicants.
Officials said tighter quarantine caps had seen “arrivals and bookings reduced to less than five passengers per day” – but the NSW government “indicated an additional 100 seats can be made available from late July to early August for humanitarian entrants”.
Despite the earlier reluctance to charter flights, the 22 July brief shows Dfat and the health department were by that point “progressing arrangements for a charter flight to transport up to 200 Afghan LEE and their families to Australia via the Howard Springs quarantine facility”.
The flight was “expected to arrive on 30 August 2021”.
But that plan was overtaken by events, with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in the middle of August prompting Australia and its allies to launch a high-risk military-led evacuation effort.
The Australian defence force flew 4,168 evacuees out of Kabul, including 2,984 Afghans with visas. The government offered emergency visas to applicants who had applied for the LEE program but were not certified – a move triggered by the practical challenges with visa processing in Afghanistan at that time.
Officials argue the government rapidly adapted its response to include one of Australia’s largest humanitarian airlift operations. The documents show a gradual increase in visas granted to Afghan LEEs between February and July 2021, before the security situation in Afghanistan quickly deteriorated in August.
A spokesperson for Hawke said on Tuesday: “The government has successfully evacuated more than 4,000 Afghan Locally Engaged Employees and their families to Australia since 2013. This is in addition to more than 10,000 Afghans that Australia has granted permanent protection in that time.”
But Labor said the documents showed “tragic” delays. “Veterans and former prime ministers were calling on the prime minister to act for months,” Wong said.
“Minister Hawke ignored warnings from his own department that commercial flights would become very limited. Days later he was telling journalists that Australia would not join the US airlift, and had ‘no plan’ to mount a similar operation.”
Comment was also sought from the foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the defence minister, Peter Dutton.