Don’t forget the plight of Afghans in Australia

Further to Stuart Rees’ eloquent exposure in Pearls and Irritations of the Prime Minister’s cruelty toward those Afghans already in Australia on temporary visas, below is my letter to the Prime Minister arguing for a more humane and pragmatic asylum seeker policy. Pragmatic because times have changed – the boats are no longer coming – and because among those temporary protection visa holders are talented, resilient and determined young people.

I know this from reading the applications of young refugees, many from Afghanistan but also Syria, South Sudan, Iran and elsewhere, for tertiary transition scholarships made available by the Public Education Foundation. Over the last five years the PEF has awarded almost 300 refugee scholarships (both for secondary school students and those going into full-time tertiary study). More than 100 scholars have gone on to university, studying in courses as diverse as engineering, pharmacy and construction management. They’ve been school captains and student council representatives. Many are young women who have spent years away from schooling because they have lived under regimes which do not permit girls’ education. Others have spent years in limbo in UN refugee camps. They face a myriad of difficulties on arrival in Australia, from the legacy of trauma to adjusting to a new language and school system.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these difficulties as students struggle with access to laptops, broadband and even physical spaces to study. Despite this, they remain driven to attain educational success, while also helping their families, for example with English translation and, until lockdown, by working part-time. They even find time to demonstrate their commitment to the broader community by volunteering.

It is not enough to say, as the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have, there are no plans at the moment to return Afghan TPV holders to Australia – what an absurdity. It is time instead urgently to set in train processes to allow them, and other asylum seekers, to apply to become Australian citizens.

The Prime Minister responded to my letter but made no commitment to offering permanent protection to Afghans in Australia, saying ‘please know Afghan temporary visa holders currently in Australia will be
supported by the Australian Government and will not be asked to return to Afghanistan while
the security situation remains dire’. The Opposition spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, told me that: ‘Abolishing Temporary Protection Visas and converting those refugees to permanent visas has been long-term ALP policy and was recently re-adopted at this year’s ALP Conference’.

20 August 2021

Dear Mr Morrison

Re: Afghanistan crisis and Australia’s asylum seeker policy

I join calls from over 300 organisations to urge your government to take more, and more immediate, action to assist the Afghan people, including here at home.

I was appalled to hear your emphatic refusal to reconsider Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers who have arrived here by boat. It was cruel at this time when people who fled Afghanistan (and other war zones) watched the scenes of horror playing out in Kabul. It was also futile, given there is no chance in the foreseeable future that these people will be able to leave Australia.

In other areas of policy, your government has rightly conceded that changed circumstances call for changed policy settings. This is most obvious in the decision in the face of COVID-19 to abandon a goal of achieving surpluses. It is now time to recognise that the policy (of both the Coalition and the ALP – I am copying this letter to Mr Albanese) of ‘turning back the boats’ and not allowing maritime arrivals to receive permanent protection is obsolete. Migration to Australia is all but halted.

That brings me to the new reality: labour shortages across the country, notwithstanding the slight drop in the latest figures caused by lockdown in NSW. Australia has a valuable resource of potential workers among those on temporary visas. I know from assessing applications from young refugees for tertiary transition scholarships what tenacity and hard work these people can harness. For the last three years, the most highly ranked scholars have been on temporary protection visas. A good many of the successful applicants are Afghans. Deliberately to squander such talent and drive is mean, obstinate and against Australia’s interests.

I ask you to reassess Australia’s refugee policy with both humanity and pragmatism.


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