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‘Moral obligation’: former prime minister John Howard calls for Australia to help Afghan interpreters

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a group of people walking down a dirt road: Photograph: Corporal Raymond Vance/PR IMAGE

Former Australian prime minister John Howard has added to calls for the federal government to grant protection visas for Afghan subcontractors who fear for their lives under resurgent Taliban rule.

Howard, who first sent Australian troops to the war-torn country in 2001 leading to two decades of involvement in the conflict, said the nation has an ethical duty to provide safe haven for Afghans who aided their cause.

“It was a moral obligation that we shamefully disregarded many years ago when we pulled out of Vietnam,” the 81-year-old told SBS TV.

“I do not want to see a repetition of that failure in relation to Afghanistan.”

His comments come as an Afghan interpreter who worked with Australian forces and fears Taliban retribution has had his flight to Australia with his family cancelled, after caps on international arrivals were halved.

The interpreter told the Guardian he had been scheduled to leave Afghanistan on 24 June, but the flight was cancelled after his wife tested positive to Covid-19.

After she recovered the flight was rescheduled on the condition everyone in the family tested negative. But the later flight was then also cancelled after the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison announced the reduction in the cap from 14 July to ease pressure on hotel quarantine.

The slashing of international entries has added a new level of panic for desperate Afghans whose work alongside Australian troops has made them targets of the Taliban.

About 80 Afghan interpreters and their families arrived in Australia on commercial flights in the last days of June. But hundreds of their colleagues and other contractors are still in the country, either waiting for their visa applications to be processed or waiting for a flight once the visa has been approved.

The home affairs department confirmed that Afghans approved under the special humanitarian visa program for locally engaged employees (LEE) found to be at risk of retribution are included in the capped arrivals allowed to enter the country.

The flight bookings with Emirates via Dubai are made by the Australian immigration department for those whose visas have been approved, meaning they have no direct contact with the airline.

Another interpreter who has been waiting to receive his flight confirmation said he had not been contacted by anyone from the government about the changes. This has left him increasingly anxious about his chances of leaving Afghanistan safely.

“It’s not good news for us [because] time is running out,” he said. “We cannot go outside due to security problems and target killings.”

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