No special treatment for Iraqis who help troops
The Age (Melbourne)
August 5, 2007
THE Government and Opposition have ruled out any special help for Iraqis working for the Australian Government and military in Iraq who might seek asylum if or when Australia pulls out.
Close to 100 Iraqis who work for Australia in Iraq are at risk of retaliation from militias and terrorist groups who regard Iraqis hired by foreign governments as collaborators.
The Danish Government, which has just withdrawn most of its troops from southern Iraq, has secretly flown out 200 Iraqis to protect them from retaliation.
And US diplomats are lobbying Washington to grant special visas to increasingly nervous Iraqis working for the US Government in Iraq.
But Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews says there will be no special treatment for Iraqis working for the Australian embassy or the ADF in Iraq. His Opposition counterpart, Tony Burke, agrees: if they want visas, they can apply in the normal way.
The ADF employs 77 Iraqis in a range of “general duties”. An ADF spokeswoman would not disclose the nature of those duties, citing “operational security” reasons.
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said 10 Iraqis worked for the Australian Embassy in Baghdad in administrative, research, maintenance and driving roles.
With both the Government and Opposition ruling out special treatment for the Iraqis, it means that, if they want to come to Australia, they will have to join the bureaucratic queue.
If they don't meet standard visa criteria, they will be left behind when Australia withdraws a process that will start next year if Labor is elected.
The treatment of locally hired staff the last time Australia evacuated a war zone, South Vietnam, remains controversial.
When the last Australian diplomats flew out of Saigon on Anzac Day 1975, they left behind up to 55 locally engaged embassy staff, whose visa applications had been blocked by the Labor government of Gough Whitlam, who had dismissed fears they faced retaliation from the victorious North Vietnamese communists.
They were left behind despite repeated pleas by then-ambassador Geoffrey Price for more flexible handling of visa applications.
Two weeks ago, Denmark withdrew most of its 430 troops from southern Iraq after earlier secretly flying out about 200 translators and other Iraqi staff and their families.
Evacuation was offered to anyone left in “a difficult security situation as a result of their association with Denmark”, according to the website of the Danish embassy in Baghdad.
Each person evacuated was given a Danish entry permit, with the right to apply for asylum once they entered Denmark.
The US ambassador in Baghdad has also lobbied Washington to give visas to all Iraqis working for the US Government in Iraq, fearing they will flee if they cannot be assured of eventual sanctuary in the US.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker has argued that giving them visas will prevent them joining a growing exodus of Iraqis, The Washington Post reported.
“Our (Iraqi staff members) work under extremely difficult conditions and are targets for violence, including murder and kidnapping,” Mr Crocker said in a cable to Washington.
The Washington Post said the number of Iraqis who could be targeted as collaborators for their work with foreign countries could be as high as 110,000.
More than four million Iraqis have been displaced in recent years. About two million have fled to neighbouring Syria and Jordan, and another two million are displaced inside the country.
Mr Andrews' spokeswoman said Iraqis working for Australian agencies could apply for normal refugee or skilled migrant visas.
“If they apply under the refugee or humanitarian program and they have any particular concerns, we will of course look at that.”
She said granting special visas to Iraqis working for Australia would be contrary to the Government's non-discriminatory migration policy.
“There should be no priority treatment for granting visas solely on nationality,” said a spokesman for Mr Burke, the shadow immigration minister.
“All humanitarian claims should be heard in the normal way. Claims should be determined based on merit, regardless of nationality or ethnicity.”
No home to go to
US diplomats are lobbying for special visas for Iraqis working for the US embassy.
The Australian embassy and army in Iraq employ 87 local staff.
The Government and Opposition have ruled out giving them help to come to Australia.
The UN refugee agency says violence is forcing 2000 Iraqis to flee their homes daily.