A single mother living in hiding with her five children under Taliban rule in Afghanistan has been counting the days for almost two years, waiting to be reunited with her husband in Brisbane as logistical barriers and red tape keep many families torn apart.
Shakila Sahak told the ABC from Kabul she was unaware of this week’s announcement that the Australian government would spend at least $160 million to overhaul the asylum processing mechanism.
“I don’t know why it’s taking so much time and so much money for them (Australian authorities) to give me and our children the promised protection and bring us together as a family again,” he said. -she declared.
Ms Sahak’s husband, Mateen Sahak, was among hundreds of Afghans who fled to Australia during the first wave of panicked evacuations from Afghanistan after the Taliban stormed Kabul in August 2021.
Fearing persecution for his critical journalistic activities, Mr. Sahak had to leave behind his family, including a newborn daughter, now two years old.
“I didn’t have the chance to hold my youngest daughter and kiss her,” Mr. Sahak said.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again. It makes me cry every night.”
Ms Sahak’s husband was granted permanent protection within months of arriving in Australia in 2021.
But he is waiting for legal teams to help him prepare and file his family’s asylum applications.
“My children cannot go to school because we fear that the Taliban could trace my identity through them and possibly harm them,” he said.
Life is also difficult for Ms. Sahak in Kabul. She said the Taliban beat her twice for leaving the house without a male companion – in accordance with Sharia law imposed on them.
Under the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, women and girls are not allowed to go to places of study, work or leisure.
“I can’t tell them that my husband was a journalist and is abroad, because they would get suspicious, learn more about my husband and arrest us all,” she said.
She added that the difficult circumstances made it incredibly difficult for her to provide for her family.
“Psychologically, I’m exhausted and I’m taking medication to stay calm – and physically, I feel completely broken,” she said.
Restoring the “dignity” of the system
To “restore dignity” to the system, the government has announced plans which it says will help significantly speed up the processing of claims and appeals.
It will spend $58 million to hire 10 additional Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) members and 10 additional Federal Circuit and Family Court judges, $54 million to the Department of the Interior to deal with new applications faster and $48 million in funding for legal aid services.
Immigration Minister Andrew Giles has accused “fake” asylum applications of choking the system.
Official figures show that between June 1, 2022 and September 30, 2023, there were 24,847 protection visa filings, 2,735 protection visa grants and 16,265 protection visa refusals.
As of September 30, there are currently 29,769 hand protection visa applications.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told the ABC that a total of 20,000 places in Australia’s 2023-24 humanitarian program “will ensure we can provide permanent resettlement to those who need it most in around the world, and protection in Australia for those who need it.”.
He said priority would be given to certified former Locally Engaged Employees (LEEs) and their immediate family members, as well as immediate family members of refugee and humanitarian visa holders, refugees who have been referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to Australia for resettlement; and women and girls, ethnic minorities, LGBTQI+ and other identified minority groups.
The Australian Government has reiterated its commitment to supporting the Afghan community, with 16,500 places allocated to Afghan nationals under the humanitarian program, spread over four years to 2025-2026.
Not everyone is convinced.
Lawyer and Afghanistan veteran Dr. Glenn Kolomeitz said it has never been more difficult for Afghans and their families to obtain a visa.
“This funding announcement reeks of politics and I suspect it will have little or no impact on the advancement of visa applications for our at-risk Afghans,” he told the ABC.
“The government is trying to get out of the Afghan refugee issue and everything else is just manipulation.”
Persecution of refugees in Pakistan
Afghan citizens must be outside their country to be considered for the protection visa.
As no country recognizes the Taliban as a legitimate government, Australia has no official diplomatic presence in Kabul.
Due to its geographical proximity, neighboring Pakistan has become the preferred option for desperate and vulnerable Afghans fleeing persecution.
Authorities in the capital Islamabad have announced a new deadline in November for hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan – or be deported.
The move, widely condemned by rights groups like Amnesty International, raised additional concerns and further hampered the hopes of many people who had hoped to obtain protection visas from Western diplomatic missions in Pakistan.
The Afghan embassy in Islamabad said in a statement published on .
Jahanzaib Wesa, an Afghan human rights activist based in Islamabad, received his case number from the Ministry of Interior in November 2022.
“I am so happy and slightly relieved to hear the news that they promised to speed up the visa process, because if the Pakistani police arrest me and deport me to Afghanistan, the Taliban will kill me without anyone don’t know,” he told ABC.
Mr. Wesa and his fellow refugees from the Afghan Human Rights Defenders in Exile group have organized numerous protest demonstrations in Pakistan against the arrests.
Amnesty International demanded that Pakistan “urgently stop arbitrarily arresting and harassing Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing persecution by the Taliban.”
Karachi-based researcher and author Zia Rehman told the ABC that police and other law enforcement agencies are aggressively exploiting the government’s new ultimatum to arrest and mistreat refugees.
“Pakistan is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, therefore, under the pretext of internal security concerns, it launched a crackdown against Afghans and threw away many refugees, including women and children, in prison,” he said.
For Ms. Sahak, this situation means waiting for a “miracle”.
“I have very little courage left and I will take any risks to travel to Pakistan if the Taliban do not capture me, provided the Australians (authorities) have some mercy and allow visa applications for me and my children.”