MEDIA – Opinion – The Canberra Times – Our Afghan interpreters have earned a place here
CANBERRA – 11 June, 2021
With the withdrawal of Australian service personnel from Afghanistan, and the end of the international military deployment, we must support the many Afghans who worked alongside us.
Many Australians served in Afghanistan. Some served in uniform, while others worked with DFAT, AusAid, various NGOs, the United Nations or for other organisations.
These Australians contributed to a mission that sought to bring security and help build a brighter future for the people of Afghanistan.
Our mission would have been impossible without the essential work performed by Afghan interpreters.
They did more than just translate words: they acted as cultural brokers, reading the environment and assisted by providing advice which helped make decisions, with often inadequate information.
They provided a deep cultural, environmental and situational awareness.
Many thousands of Australians who served and worked in Afghanistan know that they owe their lives to interpreters.
I know, as I am one of them.
During my time in southern Afghanistan in 2003 working to secure elections, I relied on the support of my interpreters.
They provided me with advice and guidance beyond making communication easier.
From advice on whether to take a certain road, or the flow of a conversation, or the reliability of information received, translators went above and beyond in their duties.
In one specific instance, I received advice on a particular course of action that if not taken would have likely ended in death.
Had I not taken that advice, I am certain that I wouldn’t be here today.
Understandably I feel very grateful to the translator who gave me this advice.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone who served in Afghanistan who doesn’t feel the same.
Now, with the withdrawal of troops, these translators are in great danger.
From their work supporting our personnel, translators are targets for violence and retaliation by the resurgent Taliban.
We know the Taliban are growing in strength and will move to fill any vacuum created by the departure of foreign forces.
We know that not only those who worked with Australians in Afghanistan are targeted.
Their families are similarly at risk of kidnapping and murder at the hands of the Taliban.
The stories from our translators still in Afghanistan are harrowing – going into hiding, not leaving their homes, keeping their kids away from school.
Some interpreters have also reported not being able to find work after their time supporting foreign forces, with businesses and NGOs unwilling to take on the risk of being targeted by the Taliban through association.
We also know that interpreters who worked with Australians have been placed on Taliban kill lists, and have been subject to active and ongoing threats.
Other countries are moving quickly to secure their own translators. More than 3000 Afghans will settle in the UK, on top of 1300 who have already done so.
The US is planning to evacuate those interpreters who worked alongside their forces.
Given these developments, why has our government not announced a similar move?
Without a doubt, Australia owes a great debt of gratitude to the Afghan interpreters for their service in protecting our personnel.
My colleague, shadow foreign minister Penny Wong, recently put it well at Senate estimates when she said: “These [interpreters] are friends of Australia and I think they deserved to be treated better than they have been thus far.”
This is a view that is shared by many.
Jason Scanes, a retired army captain who served in Afghanistan, advocates for the interpreters through his organisation Forsaken Fighters.
Despite the priority processing established to enable translators to come to Australia, many have been made to wait years before being resettled.
In one case a translator was approved in July 2013, but wasn’t resettled until January 2020.
With the closure of our embassy in Kabul, it is likely that this situation of administrative inertia will not be improved.
But the challenge of resettling translators is greater than the moral crisis it presents.
It also goes to the heart of what our military operations look like.
Jason Scanes told me: “Military capability is fundamentally about people, not just bombs and weapons. These translators were an integral part of our force capability. If we burn these bridges now, we are burning capability into the future.”
I believe to move slowly on this brings dishonour to our country.
The federal government tells us it is actively working to fix this situation and bring the translators here. That’s good.
My worry is that they are not working quickly enough, and are not cutting through the red tape that prolongs applications and approvals.
We need prompt action.
We owe nothing less to these brave translators who assisted us to make a difference there.
They kept their commitment to us. We need to keep our commitment to them.
Luke Gosling is a Labor MP and the federal Member for Solomon.
This opinion piece was first published by The Canberra Times on Thursday, 11 June 2021.