Topics: Evacuation of Australians, permanent residents, and Australian visa holders from Kabul International Airport; settlement of evacuees in Australia
KAREN ANDREWS: While our operations in Kabul have ceased, we have now had 1,035 people arrive in Australia from the Middle East. Our work regarding Afghanistan is not complete, we are continuing to support those people who we have evacuated from Afghanistan, through to Dubai, and now through to Australia. Our efforts are clearly focused on resettlement and settlement here in Australia. We have 1,035 people here in quarantine in a number of capital cities across Australia including Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne Sydney and Brisbane and we will continue to look at opportunities for those people to leave quarantine and go straight into settlement options here in Australia. Some of the people wo have returned are Australian citizens but may not have been here for quite some time, so support will be given to them to help them to settle back into Australia.
For our permanent residents some will not have been here for a very long time, and similar to Australian citizens, we will be doing all that we can to ease their transition back into Australia. There will also be in the coming days and weeks people who have never set foot in Australia. And I know that all Australians will welcome them with open arms as they embark on a new life here in Australia. We have been working particularly over the last couple of weeks with various groups here in Australia and overseas to identify how we could open up more opportunities for how people could come here from Afghanistan. We are specifically looking at people who have links to Australia, who may have family here. We’re also looking at minority groups, women and children. So over the coming weeks and months we will be committing to bringing 3,000 people here from Afghanistan as part of our humanitarian program. That work is underway and it will continue.
QUESTION: Is there an estimate of how many Australian citizens, permanent residents and visa holder remains in Afghanistan, you said 3,000 you’re going to try to bring over by the way of visa holders, what’s the actual number on the ground?
KAREN ANDREWS: There is a total of 4,100 people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan, 1,000 of those have already made their way to Australia. We are aware that there are still people in Afghanistan who are looking to come to Australia. We have asked people to register with DFAT if they are Australian citizens, but I have to say that number is increasing daily as more people are wanting to travel to Australia. Some of those are Australian citizens now wishing to return home who have only recently identified themselves to DFAT. So the number of people on the ground in Afghanistan is moving. I expect the numbers will increase particularly as our humanitarian program starts to open up for these people to join the program and come to Australia.
QUESTION: Do you have an estimate of that number as you say have registered with DFAT, is there an estimate of how many people so far have registered with DFAT?
KAREN ANDREWS: The number is increasing and I’m very conscious of the fact that we need to invite people to register, so I don’t want to be doing anything that discourages people to register, we are keen for people to put their hand up and register with DFAT, but also apply under our humanitarian program. I’m expecting those applications under the humanitarian program is going to continue to rise and rise quite quickly over the next day or so. It will be most likely in excess of 3,000 people who will apply to come to Australia under the humanitarian program, and we’re expecting those to come in very quickly.
QUESTION: But Minister you’ve got no diplomatic presence on the ground, the military aircraft all gone, the PM has said there is a very slim chance of getting people out on US military aircraft, there are potentially hundreds of Australian citizens and Afghan visa holders that remain in Afghanistan, how on earth are you going to get those people out of that country?
KAREN ANDREWS: We’re looking at a range of options, we will continue to work with our international partners – the United States we’re already working with and the United Kingdom; we’re already working with the UNHCR and the IOM – so there is a presence from some of those organisations still on the ground in Afghanistan. Much of the application work can be done online, and we are aware that over the coming weeks commercial flights will restart – clearly they’ve paused, but our understanding is they will start at some point. So there are opportunities to bring people here, but the first part of that process is to register with DFAT if you’re an Australian citizen, or make a visa application as you can do online, and for those people who don’t have access to much in the way of communication in Afghanistan someone else can make that application on their behalf to come here.
We do need to have an orderly process for these people to come to Australia. We won’t compromise on the security of our nation, so it is important that we go through a process of security checking everyone who wishes to come to Australia to make sure they are not going to put our community here at risk and we will continue to do that. DFAT has issued very clear advice as to the action people should be taking particularly in Kabul at the moment. That is not to go to the airport, if you are at the airport you need to go to a safe place and you need to follow DFAT’s instructions.
QUESTION: Boris Johnson has told those the UK is leaving behind he will shift heaven and earth to get them back in the next phase, can you say hand on heart that Australia will shift heaven and earth to get Australian citizens and visa holders back.
KAREN ANDREWS: We are shifting heaven and earth to make sure that we are doing everything we possibly can to get people home as soon as we can. It was a phenomenal effort led by our Australian Defence Force to uplift over 4,000 people from Afghanistan in the most horrendous of conditions. We’re hearing about the temperatures in Kabul on the tarmac that, in my understanding was well in excess of 60 degrees, it was horrendous conditions just with the weather there let alone the fact that there were imminent attacks and we know that terrorist attacks have now taken place. Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, so many nations have already moved heaven and earth to get people out of Afghanistan and I can assure everyone that Australia will continue to do absolutely everything it can to get Australians home and also to make sure those people who can access our humanitarian program can do so and are here as soon as we possibly can.
QUESTION: What are their options, for some it’s maybe on US or UK flights or waiting for commercial flights to restart, for those in Kabul they’re in a vulnerable situation, what are their options from here?
KAREN ANDREWS: The options are to remain as safe as they possibly can at this point in time. There are some operations still running out of Kabul, but the prospect of our Australian citizens and permanent residents being able to get on that is now limited. The first thing to do is make yourself as safe as you possibly can, do not go to the airport. If you are at the airport, move away from the perimeter of the airport, because we already know that there have been terrorist attacks. So the first step is to make sure that people are safe. The second is continuing to work with people on the ground. And as I’ve said, that includes the likes of the UNHCR, it includes the IOM, it includes any other agency that still has some presence on the ground in Afghanistan. We will be doing what we can, and, yes, commercial flights will be restarting, but in the first instance, we need to make sure that people are as safe as they possibly can be.
QUESTION: Is another option, though, talking to Pakistan, potentially? Has the Australian Government talked to Pakistan about allowing them to enter that country and leave the airport via Pakistan?
KAREN ANDREWS: We will continue to talk with many other nations, particularly those that are in the immediate vicinity of Afghanistan. We’re also looking at access to camps, refugee camps, to see how we can access people who are already there, and people who might be able to get to a refugee camp. It’s not just a single approach that Australia is taking. We’re leaving no stone unturned in our attempts to make sure that we are identifying the people that we should be bringing here to Australia.
QUESTION: Minister, the US has launched drone strikes against some ISIS-K leaders recently, I think they killed at least some of them, does Australia welcome this action?
KAREN ANDREWS: President Biden had some very strong statements recently. They’re statements for the President of the United States to make and they will continue, I’m sure, to defend, as they see fit, their operations in Afghanistan. Our operations have now concluded, and our focus is on resettling people from Dubai here to Australia and settling those people who are already here. That’s what our approach is. Our operations in Afghanistan have ceased.
QUESTION: Is there any prospect of offensive attacks being launched by Australia, or supporting the US militarily?
KAREN ANDREWS: There’s no suggestion at this point in time that Australia is going to take any such action. As I’ve indicated, our focus is very much on settlement and resettlement options.
QUESTION: Are you aware of any Australian citizens or visa holders being injured or killed in the attack in Kabul?
KAREN ANDREWS: The advice that DFAT has provided at this point in time is that there is no one who has been affected, but that continues to unfold in Afghanistan, particularly in Kabul at this point in time. But at this stage, there is no advice that we have received to indicate that there has been any fatalities at all of Australian citizens or permanent residents.
QUESTION: Minister, one of the sad cases emerging is a Sydney man whose wife and children are now stuck behind the airport doors. They can’t get out of the country, they were told to stay as safe as possible, they fear the Taliban could kill them. What do you say to families in those positions? Families here who have loved ones in Afghanistan who fear for their lives?
KAREN ANDREWS: This is an incredibly difficult time for all Australians, but particularly those people who have family and friends who are still in Afghanistan. As a government, we clearly understand the concerns that those people have for their families. Yes, we are very concerned about their safety primarily, but also their health in Afghanistan. As I’ve indicated previously, what we need to do is make sure that everyone who needs to be is registered with DFAT or have applied through our humanitarian program. And then we will do all that we can to assist those people to come to Australia.
QUESTION: In order for them to leave don’t you have to put faith in the Taliban to secure a path to airport, or freedom?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, it’s fair to say that the Taliban has been securing a clear path to the airport over recent days, in fact, since August 18. We will continue to work with relevant agencies, and that does include the UNHCR, includes the IOM, to support those people on the ground, and that will be where our priorities are.
QUESTION: Will you be increasing the humanitarian program?
KAREN ANDREWS: The Prime Minister has said very clearly that the 3,000 opportunities that we have opened up this financial year is a floor, not a ceiling. So we are looking potentially at the opportunities to increase that. In the first instance, our priority is identifying the first 3,000 to come here.
QUESTION: Many people have been given temporary visas that expire in three months, given they have limited options now to leave the country, will the Government look to extend those visas?
KAREN ANDREWS: That’s something that certainly will and can be looked at over time. But those visas are valid for a three-month period of time, and we are working as fast as we can to support those people that already have a visa that has been provided to them. In the first instance, people need to make themselves safe, make sure that they’re registered and following DFAT advice, and we will continue to work with them. Home Affairs will be reaching out to those visa holders and giving them specific instructions. My understanding is that work has already started and will continue to ramp up over the coming days and weeks.
QUESTION: In terms of those people that have been rescued and are about to be in quarantine what are the resettlement options for them? Have different states put up their hands?
KAREN ANDREWS: We’re working with each of the states and the territories now to look at settlement options for people as they come out of quarantine. That work will continue. And of course, there are opportunities for people to settle into regional areas. We will be doing all that we can to support them. In the first instance, we understand that many of those people will be arriving in Australia with some pretty significant health issues, including mental health issues. Some of those have come from situations where they have been tortured or their families have been tortured. We need to provide them the best support that we can. In many instances, that will mean that initially they will be based in a capital city where that support is readily available to assist them.
QUESTION: Minister, why has all the information on this operation come from the ministerial level and not from Defence? In countries like the US, Defence provide daily briefings on these sorts of operations. Why not here?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, the Australian Defence Force has been very much focussed on delivering the operations that we need on the ground, so they have been very focussed on either supporting or making the 32 total flights that we had to bring 4,100 people from Kabul. So the briefings are being done at the ministerial level, whether that’s by the Minister for Defence, the Minister for Home Affairs, the Prime Minister or myself and that is the way that it will continue. Thank you very much.