Australia’s first evacuation mission to Afghanistan rescued just 26 people amid growing fears about dangerous conditions outside Kabul’s airport, but the prime minister says he hopes those numbers will ramp up with further flights in coming days.
Scott Morrison confirmed the low initial figure – believed to be mostly Australian passport holders – as he said Australian officials were “operating in a very dangerous environment” after the capital fell to the Taliban on Sunday.
Amid mounting calls for Australia to accept a greater number of refugees at risk of Taliban retribution, Morrison also signalled his government intended to resettle about 3,000 Afghan nationals through the existing humanitarian program this year.
The Taliban has promised “safe passage” to the Kabul airport for Afghans trying to flee the country, but those claims have been undermined by reports of women and children being beaten and whipped as they try to pass through checkpoints set up by the militants. A former Afghan interpreter for the Australian military was shot in the leg as he tried to pass a Taliban checkpoint outside Kabul airport.
It is understood Australia believes it can rescue about 600 people if the current military-led evacuation mission is successful, although Morrison indicated the goal of the first flight was to get Australian government officials into the airport to assist with the logistics for subsequent flights.
“This will be done in as orderly fashion as is possible in the circumstances,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
“We need to be very clear who is getting on our planes, who is going to our base and going to come here and live in Australia.”
A Royal Australian Air Force C130J Hercules – which has capacity to carry up to 128 people – departed Kabul early on Wednesday morning with 26 passengers on board. It landed at an Australian Defence Force base in the United Arab Emirates at 10.40am AEST.
It is understood only 26 people boarded the aircraft because they were the ones who had been processed in the airport and were ready to go at the time of the first evacuation flight.
But the government expects the number of passengers on the next flights will be substantially higher, particularly now that officials are on the ground to oversee processing and logistical issues.
Morrison said the 26 people on the first flight included Australian citizens, Afghan nationals with visas, and one foreign official working in an international agency.
The prime minister said it was “the first of what will be many flights, subject to clearance and weather”. His government aimed to “bring out as many people as we can, as quickly and safely as we can”.
The government is focused on securing the safe passage of more than 130 Australians in Afghanistan, along with Afghan nationals who worked alongside Australian troops and diplomats, and humanitarian visa holders.
A day after conceding that Australia would not be able to rescue all of the interpreters and guards who had helped Australian personnel in Afghanistan, Morrison alluded to the difficulties people faced – particularly outside Kabul – in making it past Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport.
Morrison said Australian officials would seek to establish “contact with those who are in Afghanistan, particularly closer to Kabul, to ensure that they can be in a position to be at the airport in order to be evacuated on the flights as they come into Kabul, to process their embarkation and to get onto those flights”.
“This is not a simple process,” he said. “It is very difficult for any Australian to imagine the sense of chaos and uncertainty existing across this country, the breakdown in formal communications, the ability to reach people.”
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, said there were “multiple-kilometre-long traffic queues outside the airport” on Tuesday.
“At one point people were having to be lifted over gates into the airport,” she said. “It is extremely challenging.”
Asked whether Australia would recognise the Taliban-led government, Payne said a government was yet to be formed, but indicated she would be watching to see whether the Taliban lived up to its promises: “A request for trust is usually met by an expectation that trust is earned.”
The Coalition has faced growing calls to offer a special humanitarian intake for Afghan refugees, similar to what the Abbott government set up in 2015 for 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Such a move would be in addition to Australia’s existing annual humanitarian intake.
Canada has said it will take 20,000 Afghan refugees and the US appears likely to resettle up to 30,000. The UK is planning to prioritise women, children and religious minorities in a resettlement scheme for 20,000 Afghan refugees over a five-year period.
Morrison indicated the Australian government would provide about 3,000 humanitarian visas to Afghan nationals this year under its existing humanitarian program, not in addition.
“That’s more than double what we’ve been doing, and in some cases triple what we’ve been doing, in the current year,” Morrison said, adding that he hoped to do “more than that”.
Morrison, who instituted a hardline policy against asylum seeker boat arrivals when he was immigration minister, added that Australia “will only be resettling people through our official humanitarian program going through official channels”.
He also said the government would not offer a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship for those who arrived by boat, in a blow to more than 4,200 Afghan nationals currently living in Australia on temporary visas.
Morrison’s comments came a day after the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, announced that no Afghan visa holder currently in Australia would be sent back to Afghanistan “while the security situation there remains dire”.
The government has faced criticism for its slow response to the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, including from the former Australian defence force chief Chris Barrie, who told the ABC the “ugly truth” was that “we’ve just left it far too late”.
On Tuesday the former Australian army captain Jason Scanes, who has campaigned for years on behalf of Afghan nationals who served Australia in war, said Australia’s delay in processing humanitarian visa applications meant that many interpreters, particularly those stranded outside of Kabul, could not be rescued now.