Australia’s moral obligation to military interpreters

By Jason Scanes
military interpreters

As a former Army Captain, service in Australia’s armed forces was demanding, exciting and seriously challenging. You learn a lot about yourself when you are gifted the opportunity to see the human condition stripped of any defining anchors. For me, service outside of Australian borders instils a sense of global citizenship and reinforces the military values of courage, mateship and compassion. 

Afghanistan is a rough but beautiful country plagued by conflict and instability, and home to a resilient and proud people. The ability to communicate in complex combat environments, like Afghanistan, is not only essential to mission success but also the safety of troops. The modernisation of the battlefield has seen significant changes in the way combat operations are undertaken and how Defence and Government view ‘mission success’. These changes have seen an increased reliance on local nationals to enhance defence capabilities through communication in order to facilitate operations. 

Local nationals, recruited as interpreters, provide this essential role. As experts in the local environment, interpreters play an integral role in the conduct of Defence operations. Their job extends well beyond the simple translation of the spoken word: local interpreters need to be able to assess the feel or mood of an area. For example, an area that is normally busy and then suddenly becomes quiet may mean that the locals are aware of a planned attack. Reading body language, facial expressions, local conditions and gauging the subtle dynamics of a locality are but a few of the skills required as a military interpreter. 

Many interpreters wore the Australian Army uniform and accompanied and aided Australian troops in missions across Afghanistan. They knew it was dangerous, yet they placed themselves and their families at significant risk of persecution in the hope that stability in Afghanistan might be restored. These interpreters thought that wearing the Australian uniform in Afghanistan and loyally assisting troops, at great personal risk to their own safety, would mean something back here in Australia. And to be honest, many of the troops did also. 

Interpreters left behind are considered ‘traitors’ by insurgent groups for assisting coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are actively hunted and killed by insurgents to this day. In 2012 the Australian Government released the Afghan Locally Engaged Employee (LEE) visa program, as a way of fulfilling Australia’s moral obligation to these interpreters. Those identified as “at-risk” were assessed as eligible by the Department of Defence and given approval to apply for this ‘special visa’ class. Despite this, many interpreters are left waiting. 

Interpreters left behind are considered ‘traitors’ by insurgent groups for assisting coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since the release of the LEE visa program, the Government reports that only around 1,500 interpreters and their families have been brought to Australia since 2013. Many of these interpreters have had to navigate the complex application process, interviews and health checks without assistance, often having to travel significant distances: exposing them and their families to further danger and increased financial burden. The processing time for these applications, some up to seven years or more, have left many interpreters feeling abandoned by the Australian Government. 

In 2018, Forsaken Fighters Australia Inc. was founded to raise awareness of this issue. Since this time hundreds of pleas for assistance from Afghan and Iraq interpreters and veterans have been received. It is clear there are systemic failings with both the LEE program and perhaps more broadly with Australia’s Immigration Policy. A complete lack of assistance in the application process coupled with unacceptably long processing times is increasing the dangers faced by interpreters and their families. This could see a reluctance from local nationals to support future Defence operations for fear of being abandoned. 

Many Australian veterans will endure the mental and physical struggles of war after returning home. Shared experiences, including the separation from loved ones and the loss of mates all form part of the unique bond forged during war.  There are moral challenges of leaving a mate behind that is significantly impacting the health, wellbeing and recovery of Australia’s veterans who worked with and relied heavily upon these interpreters.

We created the position these interpreters are in. The risks and dangers to them and their families are a result of their assistance to Australian troops and the pursuit of our national interests.

The LEE visa process seems devoid of any procedural fairness or assistance and lacks an understanding of not only the culture, but the complex nature of counterinsurgency operations. These operations are focused on winning the hearts and minds of the local population and this is heavily reliant on the ability to communicate. Without communication you cannot conduct counterinsurgency operations let alone win hearts and minds. Australia has a moral obligation to ensure that those who assisted our troops – and are now actively hunted and killed – are given protection.

These interpreters deserve a visa system that is supportive and responsive to the dangers they now face. They deserve a system that helps rather than hinders them and recognises their contribution and assistance to our troops. We created the position these interpreters are in. The risks and dangers to them and their families are a result of their assistance to Australian troops and the pursuit of our national interests. It is critical that Australia hold the confidence and loyalty of local national interpreters through establishing an effective and flexible visa pathway, that ensures their safety and provides opportunities for them and their families once resettled in Australia. 

There is a real risk of Australia developing a reputation of abandoning those interpreters who risked their own safety to assist Australian troops. We must have the courage to speak up for others and to challenge unreasonable policies and systems. A promise made needs to be a promise kept. Acknowledgement and recognition of the contribution interpreters have made towards securing Australia’s national interests is well overdue.

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