Australia Grants Asylum to Iraqi Interpreters

Australian troops in Iraq perform a range of duties including embassy security, land and maritime patrols, and training the Iraqi army. (Photo: Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP-Getty Images)

The Labor party's election triumph in Australia last November has ushered in a series of tectonic policy shifts in the country. Among the raft of initiatives have been the historic signing of the Kyoto Protocol, an apology to members of the Aboriginal Stolen Generation, and, perhaps most controversially, a promise by newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by mid-2008.

However, in making the decision to withdraw combat forces, Canberra was faced with the sticky logistical and human question of how the government planned to protect local Iraqis who risked their lives by helping the Australian Defense Force (A.D.F.) troops stationed in the combat zone.

Australia has stood by the United States as a member of President George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing," which invaded Iraq in 2003 to depose Saddam Hussein's regime and dismantle his weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D.) programs. Half a decade later, Hussein has been put to death by a transitional Iraqi government, no W.M.D. have been found, and opinion polls show the Australian public has consistently wanted an end to a conflict that has raged on longer than the Second World War.

Riding a strong wave of antiwar sentiment during the 2007 election campaign, Prime Minister Rudd's Labor Party came into office pledging to refocus Australia's "war on terror." Rudd, who served as the opposition foreign spokesman during Prime Minister John Howard's Liberal government, has committed to withdrawing Australia's 550 combat troops from Iraq by June.

"Consistent with my commitment to the Australian people, we are changing the configuration of our involvement in Iraq," Rudd told the Brookings Institution, an American think tank, in April. "Our ground combat forces will be withdrawn, our air and naval elements are remaining, and we are significantly increasing our civilian aid program."

Bringing troops home from Iraq will give Rudd a chance to focus on Afghanistan, where the 2002 Bali bombers drew their inspiration and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. "Despite the Howard Government prematurely withdrawing Australia's troops from Afghanistan in 2002, it has always remained central to Labor's national security focus," the party said in a statement.

However, withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq creates a unique human rights issue; what to do with Iraqi interpreters and civilian support staff currently serving with the A.D.F.?

Coalition of the Willing

With A.D.F. personnel participating in support operations, security work, military training, and other tasks, the need for Arabic translators and other aides has been imperative. However, they have become easy targets for anti-coalition forces and have had long since needed to seek protection with the A.D.F.

"We started working with the Australian Forces since their arrival in 2005 in the southern region of Iraq (in the Al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces) and we participated with them in all their activities and duties they conducted in these two areas," an Iraqi translator working with the A.D.F. told "Some of those duties were easy, others were difficult and critical. We sometimes flew with them in the helicopters even in the most dangerous areas (north of Baghdad)."

As was the case in Vietnam and other conflicts, the courageous men and women who chose to support Australian soldiers and service members have themselves come under attack. A number have been killed and many others have been injured or threatened by anti-coalition forces because of their work with Australian troops.

"Because we were obliged to be involved in some of the dangerous duties with the Army, we became very known to most [of the] people and militias in these areas and we faced many problems and threats while we were doing our jobs," the translator, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained. "Some of us got threats and left the work, others have been assassinated and the rest are under the danger of being killed or kidnapped as soon as [the Australian] forces leave Iraq."

As a result of the extraordinarily dangerous position translators were in, many of them assumed they would be given a chance to immigrate to Australia if the situation became even more unstable. Amid continuing sectarian violence, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates 4.7 million Iraqis have already been displaced since the invasion, with 2 million men, women, and children fleeing for other countries.

To the shock of many, the Australian government initially failed to address the issue of evacuating translators when Canberra announced it would be withdrawing its forces.

The first inquiries made by with the Australian Department of Immigration found that there were "no special arrangements in place under Australia's Humanitarian Program for Iraqis who have assisted multinational forces in Iraq" and as recently as early April, the Rudd government's policy appeared to be to leave the interpreters in the hands of Iraqi security.

This situation is one dreaded by the Iraqi translators because of the successful infiltration of the security forces by militia groups who are hostile to coalition forces and those who work with them. According to the translators, most of the Iraqi police are appointed by these militias or powerful religious parties who are essentially against the presence of foreign forces in Iraq. The interpreters believed their work with Australian forces entitled them, and their families, to automatic asylum to Australia and the sentiment appears to have significant support amongst humanitarian agencies in Australia.

The Rev. Jim Carty, of the House of Welcome for refugees in Sydney, Australia, and a veteran supporter of refugee rights, believes the translators have a moral right to be considered for visas on humanitarian grounds and called on the government to act swiftly to grant refugee status prior to the troop pullout.

"My personal belief is that these people who have provided the essential help in this very difficult five years, have a real claim on our humanity if not under the U.N. convention," he said. His call is supported by Graham Thom, of Amnesty International Australia, who said his organization had asked the federal government to "accept more responsibility" for the consequences of the invasion of Iraq.


The Australian government appeared to take much of this sentiment into account when, in a surprise contradiction of its previous policy advice, it announced on April 8 that 600 humanitarian visa places would be given to L.E.E.'s (locally engaged employees) and their families. The blanket asylum was given to Iraqi employees as reward for their work with Australian forces and in recognition for the fact that they and their families would be put in danger once A.D.F. troops are withdrawn.

"Iraqi employees, including translators and interpreters, who have supported Australian troops in Iraq will be able to apply for resettlement in Australia in recognition of the personal security situation they will face as Australia withdraws its combat forces from southern Iraq," said the joint statement from the minister for immigration, Senator Chris Evans, and the minister for defense, Joel Fitzgibbon.

Acknowledging that Iraqis working with Australian forces had been "targeted" by anti-coalition forces, the statement added: "The Australian Government will adopt a new visa policy to enable the permanent resettlement in Australia of locally engaged employees (LEEs) and their families at risk because of their engagement with the Australian Government."

Marking translators as one the first to benefit from the policy, the statement said, "The policy will apply only to LEEs and their families specifically designated by the Government as eligible for a humanitarian visa under the new policy and it is anticipated that up to 600 visas will be granted. The first group of employees to benefit will be a select group of Iraqis who have worked for, or with, the withdrawing elements of the Australian Defence Force commitment to Iraq."

The visas will be conditional on "strict health, character and national security checks," said the department.

The decision has been fully supported by Australian humanitarian groups and refugee supporters. Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett, a long-time advocate for refugee rights, described the change in policy as "sensible" and said he hoped this signaled, in a broader sense, a more enlightened policy towards Australia's refugee intake than that of the previous Howard government.

Bartlett told that, "Asylum was a very contentious issue in Australia under the last [Liberal/National] government. It's good to see the present government being upfront about the issue."

"I would have urged the government to make sure [the translators] were safe one way or the other," he added. "We have a special obligation here obviously.… Australia was a key player in the invasion of Iraq and we have some responsibility for all that's happened since."

Anna Samson, national policy director of the Refugee Council of Australia, agreed that Australia had a "moral responsibility" to help those put in danger because of their activities with Australian forces.

"The Refugee Council congratulates the government for looking for creative and responsible ways in which Australia can live up to its responsibilities under international refugee agreements," she said in an interview. Samson added that the Minister's change in heart was a "welcome move" but called on the government to extend the amnesty to other refugees in Iraq displaced by the war and other refugees living in Australia under temporary protection visas (T.P.V.'s).

Announced just weeks prior to the April 25 ANZAC Day commemorations, the day when Australians and New Zealanders remember the fallen of past wars, the decision to award the translators conditional asylum will be supported by many veterans, refugee groups, and ordinary Australians. It is a humanitarian act the government will hope will draw a line under Australian involvement in one of the most unpopular wars in the country's history.

Refugee representative groups in Australia will hope the decision foreshadows a move away from the more hard-line approach toward refugees than that which existed under the previous administration, toward a more liberal interpretation of Australia's responsibilities under international law.

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