After spending 20 years in their country, we have a responsibility to protect those in Afghanistan whom the Taliban may see as our collaborators. It is right that they have been prioritised by our government for evacuation and humanitarian visas.
However, we must do more than business as usual for those who have fled, or are seeking to flee, the Taliban regime.
In other humanitarian crises, the need for special arrangements has been recognised by both Coalition and ALP governments. In 2015, our government provided an additional 12,000 humanitarian visas for people fleeing Syria. In earlier decades we showed greater generosity to those affected by upheavals in Iraq and Vietnam, as well as after the events in Tiananmen Square.
For Afghanistan, all we have so far committed to is "at least" 3000 humanitarian visas - within the reduced 2021-22 Humanitarian Program ceiling of 13,750 places. By our past standards, this is a miserly response.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has called for the government to consider expanding Australia's refugee resettlement program with a specific Afghan intake, saying it would welcome any initiatives in that direction and noting that the UK and Canada have each pledged to take an additional 20,000 people from Afghanistan.
As well as those evacuated in the Kabul airlift and others still in Afghanistan, there are others who fled the regime over the past 20 years and are now stuck in our region as a result of "Operation Sovereign Borders". They, too, fled in fear of their lives, only to become trapped by changes to Australian refugee policy that have put their lives on hold for up to nine years and counting. For them, also, the Taliban takeover means they have no prospect of safely returning to Afghanistan.
There are still around 125 people in Papua New Guinea and about 107 in Nauru. They are seeking asylum and Australia has sent them offshore, re-signing an agreement with Nauru to continue offshore processing on September 24. Others exist on precarious temporary visas in Australia. More than 7000 people from Afghanistan who have met the criteria for being refugees remain in limbo in Indonesia. Some are stranded by our prohibition of settlement in Australia for those registered after 2014. Around one-quarter of all refugees or asylum seekers living in Indonesia are children.
To the trauma that every refugee has experienced, Australia has added the mental health effects of prolonged uncertainty, worry, and lack of hope for the future, through our failure to resettle refugees languishing in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and our failure to provide durable solutions for those from Afghanistan and elsewhere who are on temporary protection visas in Australia. Many have been on these visas since 2014, because Australia's refugee policy does not afford permanent protection for people who came to Australia by boat.
Our policies need to reflect an understanding of what it means to be a refugee and run for your life using whatever means you can. The desperate scenes at Kabul's airport remind us of this. For some, this desperation to flee the Taliban meant travelling by boat. They should not be made to live in indefinite detention in Australia or in third countries like Indonesia - without work or other human rights - because of their means of travel.
For those in Indonesia, "doing the right thing" and waiting for resettlement through the UNHCR offers little chance of an Australian visa. Not only has our total humanitarian intake been reduced in recent years, but only one-third of the visas are available to them if they don't already have a relative in Australia.
We need to substantially increase the number of visas for vulnerable Afghans, including those stuck in our region, with limited study options and unable to work, settle, marry, contribute or plan for a future. The mental health toll of this inhuman situation has included 13 suicides in Indonesia alone over the last seven years. Where they have been found to qualify for protection, they should be afforded permanent protection or priority for third-country resettlement.
As a wealthy nation whose strategic and refugee policies have contributed to the uncertainty faced by Afghan refugees, we need to show leadership, as past prime ministers of both political persuasions have done during other periods of humanitarian crisis. We can afford kindness both to the people who have helped Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and those who fled to seek safety in our region.
Now is the time to act, by increasing our intake to 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan; resettling those languishing in our region; providing community resettlement instead of immigration detention; and removing the temporary protection status for refugees from Afghanistan.
How can we justify doing otherwise?
- John Minns is an emeritus professor at the Australian National University's School of Politics and International Relations.