Betrayed: jobless Iraqis in despair
THE program to resettle the Iraqis who risked their lives translating for Australia's troops has, on one crucial measure, been a near total failure.
Unfairly treated ... Ali Risn on the ground in Iraq.
Three years after they fled Iraq on secret RAAF flights, all but a tiny fraction of the interpreters are unemployed and have to rely on Centrelink benefits.
Senior group members in each Australian state have helped the Herald to anonymously survey most of the adults on their efforts to get work.
Many are fearful and highly secretive, believing if their names or faces are made public, militia in Iraq who regard them as traitors for helping Australian forces will carry out reprisals on their relatives.
The largest group of interpreters and their families, in Dandenong, east of Melbourne, includes 76 adults.
After the survey, a spokesman said only one had full-time work - an apprenticeship - two others had part time work, and 73 had no work.
The survey covered 223 adults living in the six state capitals. Based on the responses from the senior interpreters, only nine of the group have full-time work.
The failure is all the more stark when the interpreters' backgrounds are considered.
Inevitably, the multinational force in Iraq recruited highly educated locals with good foreign language skills. More than half those in the Herald survey, 135, reported having university degrees or other tertiary qualifications.
Yet based on their responses, only one person in the adult group of 224 is working in their area of expertise.
The woeful unemployment rate among the interpreters belies consistently strong employment data in Australia. The national jobless figure of 4.9 per cent in April is the envy of much of the rest of the world.
The peak national body for migrants, the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, said the
interpreters' problems in getting work demanded specific attention.
The chairman, Pino Migliorino, said Australians ''should see this as a lost opportunity and a loss of skills. We're crying out for skills in Australia.''
He said the interpreters needed ''a specific set of services which are tailored … to make sure that they can get to the starting line of employment on an equitable basis''.
Many of the Iraqis, baffled and frustrated by the near total lack of opportunities, look back fondly on their time working multiple jobs in Iraq - interpreting as well as in their chosen professions.
One of them, a senior member of the Dandenong community who asked to be identified as ''Abdullah'', expressed the group's exasperation. ''We are interpreters in Iraq with Australian forces for three years. [Why can't we] find job[s] as interpreter[s] in Australia?''
In 2008, the Rudd government withdrew Australian forces from the conflict in Iraq and offered locally engaged employees (LEEs) and their families humanitarian visas to settle in Australia.
At the time, the defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, acknowledged: ''We have a moral obligation to [the Iraqi interpreters], to resettle them here in Australia.
''We're determined that they'll be taken care of.''
The first of a series of secret military evacuation flights took off from Tallil air base in southern Iraq on May 26 that year.
In all, 557 Iraqis have accepted visas under the program and resettled in Australia.
Many have been surprised to find their Iraqi qualifications are all but useless for getting work in Australia.
''Zaid'', 29, has a degree in dental surgery but said with only Centrelink benefits and some income from casual work as a security guard, he had no hope of paying for the bridging course and other costs to work in Australia as a dentist. ''It would cost me maybe $45,000,'' he said.
It is a far cry from his conversations with Australian soldiers in 2008, who told him: ''There's so many opportunities.
''[It's] really easy to find work, especially if you supported the Australian Defence Forces at some stage.''