In the video, New Zealand flags are burning. Their edges curl and the stars of the southern cross turn black, crumbling into the soil of a Kabul backyard. The flags are printed on sheet after sheet of paper: certificates of appreciation, thanks, and recognition of service to New Zealand.
The family burning them has held on to them for the past decade, memorialising the translation services they provided for New Zealand troops in Afghanistan. Now, those papers have become a potentially deadly hazard.
“The first day when the Taliban arrived in Kabul, my house was searched by the Taliban,” says Abdul (whose name has been changed to protect family who remain in Afghanistan). “Before my house was searched, just half an hour [before], I asked my brother to burn all the documents. And he burned all the documents … about 40 papers that I got from the New Zealand Defence Forces.”
Abdul is a New Zealand Afghan who worked for years as a translator for the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) in Bamyan, and came to New Zealand in 2014. Since then, he has been trying to bring vulnerable family members to join him, and applied for his sister-in-law’s residency in 2018. But the case has not yet been processed by Immigration New Zealand.
Taliban fighters secure the outer perimeter of Kabul airport. Afghans who worked for New Zealand forces say their homes have been searched since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan. Photograph: Marcus Yam/LOS ANGELES TIMES/REX/Shutterstock
He says his documents were destroyed just in time. “Four Taliban members … they were knocking the door, and they were saying, ‘Where is Abdul? Where is Abdul?’ And my brother was saying, ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about’.”
Now, Abdul believes his family will be targeted for their connection to him, as a prominent translator for occupying forces. “It was very, very high risk for us,” he says. “Everybody knows almost all the translators, because I was involved with everything with the New Zealand Defence Force in Afghanistan.”
After Kabul fell and Taliban fighters searched his home, his family fled into hiding. Abdul is particularly concerned for his sister-in-law, who was refused passage on an evacuation flight and is now sleeping on the streets near the airport. “If she can’t leave Afghanistan, she will die. I’m sure she will be targeted as other people [have] happening to them. She will be the prime target,” he says.
“If something happens to my sister, [my wife] is saying I am guilty and telling me – ‘Why did you work for them? Why put the life of everyone at risk to work for [New Zealand]?’”
Abdul is one of 18 New Zealand-based Afghans who are part of a case taking the New Zealand government to court for alleged inaction on processing visas from Afghanistan, saying that the delays are putting lives at risk. The families of those 18 mean the case represents about 70 family members.
New Zealand announced last week that it would stop processing further visas out of Afghanistan, and cease evacuation flights. Over the past year, the country also stopped bringing in refugees under its “family reunification” program.
Community Law Centres of Aotearoa filed for the judicial review at the high court on Friday. The case will “test whether INZ had legal authority to effectively stop processing valid immigrant visa applications,” said Sue Moroney, chief executive of Community Law.
Moroney said their clients’ applications were made between three and a half years and 18 months ago. “They all have passed all of the tests for criteria for residency and the applications had reached the decision-ready part of the process,” she said. Most of the cases are families who worked in some capacity for the NZDF and are now trying to bring over family members. She said their association with occupying forces put those families in danger, and the legal proceedings were a last resort, after months of little communication from INZ on the progress of the cases.
“Immigration New Zealand in particular have been completely flat-footed in dealing with an emerging humanitarian crisis,” she said.
“Windows of opportunity for evacuation will open up – and they will open up at times when people don’t expect them to. What we are asking for is that people’s paperwork is an order, so that when those windows of opportunities do open up, it’s not the bureaucracy getting in the way of them being able to move to safety.”
Moroney says a number of those represented have sent passports to New Zealand as part of their immigration applications, and family members in New Zealand have held them as they wait for the application to be processed – so those in Afghanistan are now stranded. Abdul’s sister-in-law is in this position.
“I was telling her, because you do not have a passport, you do not have your Afghan National ID you cannot go anywhere – and she was crying all the time, my wife here is worrying, she is crying, [asking] ‘What should we do?’ I tell her: we cannot do anything, it is just up to New Zealand immigration, and they are working very slow.”
Immigration New Zealand did not respond to a request for comment.
Minister for immigration Kris Faafoi also did not respond to a request for comment.