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Afghan interpreter resettlement deal confirmed

PALOMA MIGONE, VERNON SMALL AND OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 16:06 26/10/2012
KRISSY DWYER/Fairfax NZ

Prime Minister John Key talking about the return of 23 Afghan interpreters.

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Prime Minister John Key says the Afghan interpreters left out of a resettlement package announced today are eligible to apply as refugees.

The Government today confirmed it would offer 23 interpreters currently employed by the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan, and their immediate dependents - about 73 people in total - the opportunity to either come to New Zealand or accept a three-year salary payment so that they can relocate elsewhere in Afghanistan.

However, former Afghan interpreters forced into hiding after serving with Kiwi troops are "heartbroken" after being excluded from the deal.

Key this afternoon said the former interpreters were able to apply to come to New Zealand under the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR) quota of 750 people per year.

"I imagine we'll look a little bit more sympathetic to them than others. But they won't have the straight fast-track that we are going to see for the 23 interpreters," he said.

They would be granted a place under the scheme on a case by case basis, based on "real risk".

"For someone who may have left [the PRT], when you think about it, they've already made the assessment that's it's okay for them to re-integrate," Key said.

"The risk, we think, is much greater for those who are currently working for us."

Key said to leave the 23 interpreters behind "after all they have done for us and the very high profile way they've operated, sounds a little bit unfair".

"These Afghan interpreters, they've physically gone out with our military people," he said.

"We try and make sure people who give enormous service to the country are rewarded and respected for the risks they might then face."

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said he had received no direct approaches from former interpreters.

However, those with with a good case and who felt at risk should approach the director of the PRT and make their cases.

"We would look at it reasonably."

He said that did not apply to all staff, however, such as contractors or cleaners who had worked for the New Zealanders in Bamiyan, because they had not all had a high profile.

In a statement, Coleman and Immigration Minister Nathan Guy said Cabinet approved the package on Tuesday and it was being communicated to the interpreters in Bamiyan.

Guy said the interpreters were not "refugees" as defined by the Refugee Convention or have asylum seeker status, but will be granted residence under a discretion offered by Section 72 of the Immigration Act.

"Those who wish to come to New Zealand will be offered the same initial resettlement arrangements as offered under the annual refugee quota, including a six week resettlement programme at the Mangere Refugee Centre."

They will not displace refugees offered places under the refugee quota programme, he said.

Mustafa Ahmadi, 26, worked as a translator for the PRT in the northeast Bamiyan province for five years.

He was forced to flee from the province and go into hiding with his wife and four-month-old son after receiving death threats from insurgents about 10 months ago.

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"I was working in the most dangerous part of Bamiyan and I had to leave because I was receiving so many horrible warnings saying I would be killed for information.

‘‘If I stayed, my family and I would have been beheaded by the Taliban because they were looking for an opportunity to get me."

The former interpreter said he had a letter from a New Zealand commander stating that he was forced to leave the PRT because of the death threats.

Ahmadi said that since he had to go into hiding he had been hoping an offer of asylum would be made to him and his family.

"I am really upset because I was one of the interpreters who supported the New Zealand Government in the very early days."

Ahmadi said he had no doubt the Taliban would find him once the troops left and then kill him, his wife and their baby.

Diamond Kazimi, another former interpreter who now lives in Christchurch, said the news was "heartbreaking" for those who had worked for the Kiwi soldiers in the past.

His brother and cousin, who had both served as interpreters, were excluded from the offer.

"I am really angry that the Government doesn't really care about those who have worked for them before.

"For these people, it's their life.

"They will get killed if they don't come to New Zealand."

Meanwhile the Refugee Council of New Zealand has thanked the Government for the decision.

"The decision to provide protection and resettlement for up to 25 primary interpreters and their immediate families was most certainly the correct one," said Poole, "not only on humanitarian grounds, but also for practical and strategic reasons."

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