Shafaq News/ Two dozen Iraqi nationals who served alongside Australian soldiers battling Islamic State say they have been abandoned in their homeland, living in fear of militia groups who have sworn retribution against anyone who assisted foreign forces.
“The threat is real and there will not be a ‘warning’ or anything like that,” said one former interpreter, Mohammed, who has gone into hiding.
“The militias are criminals. They have killed people who worked with foreign forces before … if they catch me or any of us, there will not be a second chance.”
In 209, the Guardian reported more than 60 ADF interpreters were caught in a bureaucratic limbo – told they were ineligible for resettlement or unable to apply for visas from inside Iraq – as their country roiled under sectarian violence.
However, some were subsequently able to get out.
In mid-2020, former interpreters were invited, in an email from Australia’s defence department, to confirm their interest in applying through Australia’s dedicated Iraq Locally Engaged Employee (LEE) scheme.
At least 35 of those interpreters have since been granted visas to resettle in Australia: 30 have already moved.
But 25 say they remain stuck in Iraq, their applications to Australia stalled, and with no response from the Australian government for more than a year.
No interpreters who have worked for Australia have yet been killed, but most have had to move out of Baghdad, or away from their family homes for fear of reprisal attacks as Iranian-backed militias continue to threaten and attack anyone viewed as having connections to the West. Militants launched an exploding drone attack on the Iraqi prime minister’s house last month.
The Guardian is aware of at least one interpreter who, after waiting several months for a response from Australia, abandoned his application, and sought a visa to the US. He was granted a protection visa to resettle in America by himself, and is trying to apply for his family to join him. Another was forced to flee over Iraq’s borders with his family. In hiding in Turkey, he described his exile as “the worst days of my life”.
The interpreters have provided photos of themselves serving alongside Australian comrades – which the Guardian has chosen not to publish for security reasons – as well as employment notices, contracts, and multiple glowing references from coalition military leaders, including officers from Australia’s Task Group Taji.
Mohammed – who is remaining anonymous for his own safety – served the ADF’s Task Group Taji, training Iraqi soldiers between 2016 and 2018 in Baghdad and west Iraq.
He said he “formed very strong relationships with almost all the Aussies and Kiwis and Americans”.
“I have continuing friendships with a lot of them.”
Mohammed has been forced to move out of Baghdad with his wife and family, fearing militant attacks.
“Most of us had to change our residence and move to a less populated area or an area with fewer militias … to give ourselves and our families the best chance of surviving.
“Thanks to Covid-19, I can cover my face so no militia member could recognise me. It sounds ironic that a virus is saving my life.”
Islamic State militants killed three civilians and 10 soldiers in an attack in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region in the country’s north this month. Mohammed said Islamic State remained a potential threat in southern Iraq, but a secondary one.
“Daesh is a minor problem at the moment, the real danger are the Iranian-backed proxies and militias, they live among us, they eavesdrop and hunt anyone who worked with coalition forces.”
The Iran-backed groups have vowed revenge for the US drone-strike assassination of Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds force, at Baghdad airport in 2020.
Another interpreter, Saif, said those remaining in Iraq were “suffering from the political and economic crises that Iraq is going through: hunger, lack of job opportunities, chaos, instability, ongoing conflicts between the parties and the threats we face”.
After being emailed by defence over the LEE program, applicants were re-vetted, and some interpreters were then issued with approval letters by defence, with which they applied to the department of home affairs for an “in-country special humanitarian visa” subclass 201, granted to people who face persecution in their home country.
The Guardian has spoken with a number of those who have moved to Australia in 2021. One says “it has literally saved our lives”.
But those left waiting indefinitely are in an “ambiguous” situation, Mohammed says.
The last email he received from the Australian government was more than a year ago.
“They never came back to us, neither with negative nor positive answer, no explanation at all. We have been so proactive and sent a number of follow-up emails but alas no reply.
“We tried to email the embassy but they informed us they can not do anything without the referral of the defence. We have worked hard to the last day of the mission, so there is no reason to leave us behind.”
Australia’s LEE scheme for Iraq was established in April 2008, when the Rudd government announced 600 places additional to the government’s humanitarian visa quota would be reserved for “locally engaged employees”, including interpreters, from its Iraq operations, acknowledging that they had been “targeted” by insurgents for their connection to western forces.
A Home Affairs official said this week the 600 places had been almost entirely filled. Iraqi LEE candidates are required to have been individually “certified” by the minister of their employing Australian government agency “as being at significant risk of harm due to their employment”.
“Visa applications from certified LEE are afforded the highest processing priority within the humanitarian program but applicants must still meet rigorous health, character and national security requirements. Depending on individual circumstances this may take a significant period of time.”
In correspondence with the interpreters, the department of defence has said interpreters “will generally be required to apply within six months of ceasing employment with the Australian Defence Force”.
“Should you not apply within this timeframe, your application will only be considered under this policy in exceptional circumstances.”
Task Group Taji ran from 2015 until June 2020, tasked with “training and assisting the Iraq Security Forces (ISF) in their fight against the terrorist organisation Daesh”. More than 2,500 Australian troops served in Taji.
As Iraqi comrades plead for Australian assistance, Canberra has also been urged to do more to resettle interpreters and other military support staff from its other most recent theatre of conflict, Afghanistan. A Senate inquiry heard there are nearly 650 former “locally engaged employees” of Australia stranded in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in August.
Source: The Guardian