Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he “absolutely agrees” with his Liberal predecessor John Howard that the government bears a moral responsibility to help Afghans who assisted Australia’s mission in Afghanistan.
In an exclusive interview with SBS News on Thursday, Mr Howard said he did not want to see a repeat of what happened after Australia left the Vietnam war and local staff were left behind.
Afghans who were employed by Australian agencies to assist as interpreters and other roles in the war-torn country now fear they could be murdered by the resurgent Taliban, which considers them “traitors” for working with foreign forces, as western troops withdraw.
Mr Howard, who sent Australia to the Afghanistan war, said if the Afghans are in danger of retribution, Australia has a moral obligation to help them.
“And it was a moral obligation that was shamefully discarded many years ago when we pulled out of Vietnam. I do not want to see a repetition of that failure in relation to Afghanistan,” he told SBS News.
Watch the full interview with former prime minister John Howard here
Mr Morrison was asked about Mr Howard’s comments on ABC radio on Friday.
“I absolutely agree with him, and this has a high level of urgency within the government, and we’re moving on that as quickly and as safely as we possibly can,” Mr Morrison said.
A number of Afghans have told SBS News they applied for the government’s Afghan Locally Engaged Employees (LEE) visa program but were rejected because they were indirectly employed by Australia.
Mr Howard suggested on Thursday Afghans who were being denied visas because they were employed via subcontractors should not be excluded “on some narrow legalism”.
Mr Morrison did not deny contractors were being excluded but said they had the option of applying for a visa through the main humanitarian visa stream.
“There are other channels that are also available,” he said.
“There are two streams: there’s the employee stream and then there’s also the normal humanitarian visa stream, and we work through both channels.”
He said the “rules around contracting” were the same under the Labor government, under which the Afghan LEE visa program came into effect in 2012.
In a separate interview with ABC radio on Friday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne conceded the safety of Afghan staff was not guaranteed just because they worked as contractors.
“I don’t think the safety of people in Afghanistan is guided by that at all,” she said.
The government has said it is working swiftly to process visas for those who’ve applied for the Afghan LEE program, but strict security and background checks must be met – including proof of identity, the accuracy of the claim of their employment, and the credibility of claims of significant harm.
More than 230 visas have been granted to Afghans and their families under the LEE program since 15 April, when Australia joined the UK and US in announcing a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
More than 1,480 visas have been granted since 2013.