As the Taliban seize control, here’s what Australia can do to help our people
23rd Aug 2021
Since the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan commenced, we woke up every day to news that the Taliban had taken over yet another district, provincial capital, and swathes of territory in Afghanistan. In the process, the fundamentalist Taliban has destroyed homes, displaced thousands of people and reintroduced draconian laws synonymous with its previous rule. As the Taliban took control, women could not so much as leave their homes without a veil. Now the takeover is complete.
The response from the West, including Australia, has been little more than to call out breaches of humanitarian law and to encourage the Taliban to take steps toward peace. All while the West attempts to absolve itself of responsibility by repeatedly stating it is up to the Afghan people and its leaders to end the conflict in Afghanistan. But the West cannot absolve itself after almost two decades of intervention and promises to the Afghan people that included protection for persecuted groups including women, democratic freedoms, and the rule of law.
Despite the inherent limitations of a middle power, and the Australian Government’s insistence that we have done all we can, it still could do more to contribute to alleviating the suffering and take small steps toward protecting minorities and women who are most at risk under Taliban rule.
Right now, our Government could announce and implement a one-off humanitarian intake of the most vulnerable Afghans, especially minority groups such as the Hazaras and women and children who have been displaced by the war and are seeking refuge on the streets of Kabul and in neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
There is a precedent for Australia increasing our humanitarian intake in times of dire need, the most recent being the 2015 announcement of an additional 12,000 humanitarian visas for people displaced by the crises in Syria and Iraq.
Canada, another member of the international intervention in Afghanistan, has already announced that it will accept 20,000 Afghan refugees. In comparison, Australia has announced only 3,000 humanitarian places for Afghan refugees.
Across Australia there are refugees from Afghanistan, predominantly from the persecuted Hazara ethnic group, who have fled the Taliban. They face an uncertain future because they are on temporary protection visas, despite the Australian Government finding that they are indeed refugees, and despite having lived here for more than eight years.
Long persecuted, the Hazaras have faced mass killings and genocide throughout the history of Afghanistan, and during the Taliban’s previous rule. The recent rise of the Taliban has resulted in increased attacks on Hazaras, including attacks on a maternity ward of a hospital that killed pregnant mothers and newborn babies; on a school where Hazara students died; and on wedding halls in Kabul.
Australia should grant all Afghan refugees who are currently on temporary protection visas permanent protection, and allow them to finally restart their lives without the prospect of being returned to Afghanistan. There are precedents. In July last year, in response to the crackdowns on democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the Australian Government announced that about 10,000 Hong Kong students in Australia would be eligible to extend their stay and would have a pathway to stay safely and permanently in Australia. In 1989, in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke offered asylum to 42,000 Chinese nationals in Australia.
Providing safe haven to Afghans is consistent with our promise to protect persecuted groups when we first entered the war in Afghanistan and is also in line with our international obligations.
There are thousands of Afghan refugees on permanent protection visas who arrived in Australia before the reintroduction of temporary protection visas, and who are prevented from reuniting with their families due to a government ministerial directive that requires the Department of Home Affairs to give the lowest priority to family reunion applications made by those who arrived in Australia by boat. The effect of this ministerial directive is that Afghan refugees who now have family members in such dangerous locations as Ghazni province, where the capital was recently overrun by the Taliban, are denied the right to safely reunite with their family in Australia.
We are aware of members of the Hazara community in Australia who have lost loved ones while waiting for their family reunion application to be processed. This directive could be terminated right now at the will of the Minister for Home Affairs.
The Australian Government continues to block resettlement of refugees in Australia through the UNHCR if they registered in Indonesia after June 2014. This ban was announced by our current Prime Minister six years ago, when he was Immigration Minister. It continues to reduce resettlement options for refugees, including about 10,000 Afghan refugees awaiting resettlement from Indonesia.
Australia could offer a one-off humanitarian intake from Afghanistan. It could provide permanent protection to all Afghans already in our communities. It could lift the effective ban on family reunion and the ban on resettlement of refugees in Indonesia. Australia could, today, be the lifeline that it promised to be 20 years ago.
This is an edited version of an article first published on 15 August 2021 at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Sign the open letter at Action for Afghanistan to call for further and immediate action by the Government.
Arif Hussein is a human rights lawyer with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Sydney.
Zaki Haidari is a refugee from Afghanistan, and a leadership co-ordinator at the Jesuit Refugee Service.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).