Scott Morrison has all but admitted the government won’t evacuate all Australian visa holders from Afghanistan, with authorities warning of an airport terrorist attack in the face of an approaching Taliban.
It prompted an emotional outburst from Labor MP Julian Hill, who was suspended from Parliament after accusing the government of “killing my constituents” and “leaving them to die”.
Australian and New Zealand forces in Afghanistan managed to evacuate another 1200 people – including an unspecified number of Australian citizens and visa holders – from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai overnight on Wednesday.
Mr Morrison said that took the total number of evacuees helped by Australian operations to about 4000 on close to 30 flights, a far higher total than the government had initially thought it would be able to reach, after Kabul fell to Taliban forces last week.
About 640 people have already returned to Australia.
But the federal government is still facing heavy pressure and criticism over why it didn’t move earlier.
Defence veterans and those with family or friends in Afghanistan had been warning for months of the encroaching and swelling Taliban forces, fearing death and persecution for those with ties to nations that had fought the militia group during the 20-year war.
Video went viral this week of a man, claiming to be an Australian citizen, who said he had been beaten by the Taliban.
On Thursday, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs changed its advice and warned citizens not to travel to the airport, citing risks of a terror attack at the gate where foreign forces are staging evacuations.
“Be aware of the potential for violence and security threats with large crowds. There is an ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack,” warned Foreign Minister Marise Payne at a Canberra press conference alongside the PM.
Mr Morrison then admitted Australian forces may not be able to help many more.
“For more than a week now, I believe I have been preparing Australians about the difficulty of this operation and the extreme moral hazard of the environment in which we’re operating,” he said.
“I said we’ll do everything we possibly can to get as many people out as safely as we can … that has been done by Australians who have been putting themselves at great risk, for whom I also have a very personal responsibility as Prime Minister.”
Mr Morrison noted that there would be a time when “operations are no longer able to be safely conducted”.
In Parliament’s question time on Thursday, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews was asked to outline the government’s work in helping resettle Afghan nationals in Australia.
She was interrupted by Mr Hill, the Labor MP for the Melbourne seat of Bruce.
“You’re killing my constituents,” Mr Hill yelled from across the chamber.
He was ordered to leave the chamber by Speaker of the House, Tony Smith, but Mr Hill continued to criticise the government’s response.
“There are thousands of Australians and their loved ones who are only in Afghanistan because you haven’t processed their visas for years and now you are leaving them to die,” the MP said loudly, before leaving.
Because Mr Hill continued to interject after being asked to leave, the Speaker took the rare step of ‘naming’ him.
It’s an official parliamentary sanction, under which Mr Hill is officially suspended from the chamber for 24 hours.
His outburst came after days of raising concerns over the government’s response in Afghanistan.
Mr Hill’s seat of Bruce has the highest number of Afghan nationals in the country. The MP has been contacted by more than 1000 families who fear for their loved ones stuck in Kabul.
Strong words, but I stand by them.
This is personal, for me & my community.
Morrison will never be able to look these Australians in the eye for abandoning their families.
— Julian Hill MP (@JulianHillMP) August 25, 2021
In a speech to Parliament on Monday night, Mr Hill raised the situation of a woman in his electorate named Razia, who he said had a sister and mother in Kabul who had waited four years for an Australian visa.
Another of his constituents, Abdul, is in Afghanistan and has an Australian visa, but Mr Hill claims he was seriously beaten on his way to the airport.
“No words are adequate to describe the helplessness, the trauma and the despair which Australians with a connection to Afghanistan feel about the return of the Taliban,” he told Parliament.
“Thousands of Australians and their families should have been out of Afghanistan years ago.”
Mr Hill claimed the Prime Minister would “go to his own grave
bearing the shame and the stain of these deaths”.
“It could have been different and it should have been different. The government was warned for years about the risks of these delays,” Mr Hill said.
PM closed the 🇦🇺 embassy in late May. Our interpreters now stuck. A mate says:
“My Terp and his family beaten today trying to get to the Gate. His 15 year old daughter had her head split by the butt of an AK47. His wife hit with a water pipe & a whip. They never made it out.” pic.twitter.com/74v4z9Io41
— Luke Gosling MP (@LukeGoslingMP) August 25, 2021
Luke Gosling, another Labor MP who served as a military officer for a decade and worked in Afghanistan, also spoke of violence in Kabul.
He said a friend of his, also an Afghanistan veteran, had passed on word that one of the interpreters he’d worked with had been assaulted on their way to the airport.
Mr Gosling said Australian forces were “doing an excellent job” but are in “a dangerous situation because this federal government took way too long to act”.
“Interpreters that saved our veterans’ lives are being left behind on the ground. Last night, one of them contacted me. He’s got a visa. He was on the way to the [airport] gate with his wife and daughter. He was bashed,” Mr Gosling said in Canberra.
“His 15-year-old daughter had her head split open by a Taliban rifle butt, and his wife was whipped and hit with a pipe. This is the reality of what’s going on on the ground in Kabul right now.”