Spence Denny: Senator Simon Birmingham, we know we wake up to the news that this explosion that killed 60 people, 140 injured people, wading through waist deep sewage and we’ve still got people we want to get out of Afghanistan. How did you respond when you saw what was going on there?
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Spence, and thanks for the opportunity. This is a tragic reminder of the barbaric nature of hate fuelled terrorism around the world and extremist ideologies that promote such terrorist activities. It’s also a reminder of the terribly challenging circumstances in Afghanistan. We had responded in recent days to the increasing intelligence reports that we were receiving and the escalating threat in Afghanistan to make sure we expedited the departure of people and to ensure that Australians were safe. And we’re relieved that our soldiers have departed from Kabul, along with the officials who were working alongside them, and that we managed to uplift the last of those people yesterday. Overall, we’ve managed to transport more than 4100 people on 32 flights out of Afghanistan, Kabul, into base in the United Arab Emirates, and progressively then airlifting those people from the UAE back to Australia. And that’s been a huge undertaking in a short period of time, for which our foreign affairs, home affairs and defence personnel have shown incredible ability to execute.
Spence Denny: So the big question here, what happens with those people still in Kabul who are desperate to get out, who want to come to Australia for whatever reason that is, whether that be because they have family here, because I’m sure there are still some in this category or whether they’ve worked with Australian forces and they’re just desperate to get out. Is there any hope for those people now? Because we know that the Taliban is saying that come August 31, we don’t want any foreign troops here at all.
Simon Birmingham: Spence, it is a very difficult situation in terms of of people who might be remaining. I think listeners would find it amazing to know that that we have continued, even in the last 24 hours, to have new registrations of people claiming to be Australian citizens in Afghanistan, despite the fact that we’ve been urging people to leave for some time. And this operation commenced last week. So obviously, it’s very difficult to handle those sorts of last minute requests and others where it was challenging for people to get through the complex security risks to the airport. The airlift of more than 4100 is beyond initial expectations of what we thought was going to be the case now we will work through a consular channels and others to try to find ways and means over time to help people. But the advice we provided in advance of these attacks yesterday to Australian citizens and others was to not approach the airport perimeter. Yes. That there was enormous danger and risk associated with that, which tragically proved to be correct, and that people should stay and stay in a safe place where they can. There are different reports, as I heard AM reporting this morning, about how long it might take following the US departure for some commercial flight services or other things to eventuate. And obviously, we’ll explore all of those and any other avenues for individuals that might still be looking to leave.
Spence Denny: Is there any hope for those people who have claims to come to Australia that are still in Afghanistan of getting out?
Simon Birmingham: Spencer, there’s always hope. But the pathways become increasingly difficult now. We had helped hundreds of people prior to the Taliban coming into Kabul to leave, to leave by commercial means and to access visas to Australia. We’ve helped thousands recently, and indeed we’d helped thousands more over the preceding years in terms of issuing special visas to those who have assisted Australia in different ways over the years and will continue to look at what we can do. But we do that in the prism of not wanting to unduly put additional people, particularly Australia’s soldiers or diplomats, at further risk in what is now a very dangerous situation.
Spence Denny: Have we been caught napping here, Senator Birmingham?
Simon Birmingham: No, Spence, as I said, these have been activities in terms of helping to repatriate people underway for years, that escalated during the course of this year and escalated with great intensity over the course of over the last week or so. But equally, you have people who have chosen for all manner of reasons to go back to Afghanistan in some cases. And as I said before, some of them only registering their presence there with Australia, asking for assistance to leave. As recently as within the last 24 hours. And that creates very challenging circumstances. That’s not everyone. Others are in difficult, more remote circumstances that become much harder. And that’s why we’ll continue to try to work. Case by case on different ways for individuals who are there. But I do think we should be proud as a nation of the efforts to get more than 4100 out, thankful to those diplomats, defence force personnel, immigration personnel who have put themselves in harm’s way to achieve that and know that we will continue to work to the successful settlement of many of those individuals in Australia to start new lives here, as well as continuing to work on anyone with legitimate claims to come to Australia who is there.
Spence Denny: Senator, I know you’ve got other commitments. We have to let you go. Thank you so much indeed.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Spence, my pleasure.