Tim Costello: Australia “Shamefully Shirking” taking its fair share of Afghan Refugees

Last week the Australian Government announced that it would take 15,000 Afghan refugees over the next four years and I am here to explain why our hearts are breaking over this announcement.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to meet Novak Djokovic at an Australian Open event to which I was invited. I was especially moved by what he told me about growing up in Serbia when bombing was a regular event and impressed by the compassion he expressed towards those who have had to flee their homelands and end up as refugees and asylum seekers.

So I was most curious when he was made one of the ‘refugees’ we have holed up in the Park Hotel in Melbourne by Australian border security. Eventually a full bench of the Federal Court found that allowing Novak to stay was risk to both public health and to public order because of his decision to refuse to be vaccinated. His visa was cancelled and he was deported with a three year ban. In effect the decision showed that the ‘god powers’ of the Minister of Immigration were beyond review and beyond questioning which only confirmed what refugees and asylum seekers to Australia have long known.

Afghans depart Afghanistan as the Taliban take over aboard a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 24th August, 2021. PICTURE: US Air Force/Master Sgt Donald R Allen/Handout via Reuters

Those refugees locked up in the Park Hotel with Novak remain locked up after their multi-millionaire tennis colleague has flown home. Even though New Zealand has offered to take them, the Australian Government chooses to keep them detained to ‘send a message’ to other refugees. And by-and-large Australians, who by temperament like to pride themselves on being fair, either look away or accept this. The harsh and cruel treatment of refugees is now Australia’s reputational signature in the international arena. This has changed the values of this nation and have become a byword for inhumanity in democracies.

But there was a moment for this reputation to change. After the fall of Kabul and the horror of watching the suffering of people fleeing the Taliban there was an outcry for Australia to share the load and open up to an additional intake of 20,000 refugees. Micah Australia helped form a campaign called Christians United for Afghanistan and all the denominations signed on. From left to right across the Christian church, there was unity on the behalf of vulnerable Afghans.

Things were looking up when our Pentecostal PM Scott Morrison initially announcing 3,000 places and saying warmly this is a ‘floor not a ceiling’ was implying more generosity was to come. Some 40 churches in the Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s electorate met with him online and sensed a different mood. He agreed that Australia, after 20 years of military engagement in Afghanistan,had a moral duty to do more and, with no refugee boats having arrived in years, a chance to change the narrative. That is the same Alex Hawke who exercised his ‘god powers’ to deport Novak and who is himself a church attender and a member of Scott Morrison’s parliamentary prayer group.

Minister Hawke was impressed that churches were so united – from Pentecostal and Sydney Anglicans to Catholics and the conservative Australian Christian Lobby. He thought this would embolden the government as it was not the usual activist refugee voices, but rank-and-file Christians. Church leaders also lobbied more than 15 other MP’s, including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who are members of the government who all strongly said they would push for a generous intake. We all sensed we were pushing on an open door. We believed that the harsh border security reputation might yield in the light of people fleeing the Taliban.

But then after this initial goodwill there was silence and no announcement. For the last five months there has been no announcement. As the government’s fortunes turned in the polls – and with the onset of the transmissible Omicron virus, they started using a harsher security language mainly around China and we speculated on the government using the spectre of a ‘Khaki election’ around protecting Australia. Sadly, opening up to vulnerable Afghans doesn’t fit that narrative of protection. Part of this is to convince the far-right of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia party who believe in freedom from having to have the vaccine but not freedom for those fleeing the Taliban. They are recidivist fear-mongers when it comes to refugees, especially Muslim refugees.

Then last Friday evening at the time honoured ‘take out the trash’ moment for political announcements that you want to bury, Alex Hawke announced that Australia would take 15,000 Afghans over four years. Five thousand are the family stream that has always existed and where the government carries no cost, and 10,000 Afghans over four years from within the existing humanitarian intake. Sound OK? No, it’s smoke and mirrors. There was not one additional place as ‘Christians United’ had been pleading for, and amounts to only 2,500 visas in the humanitarian program over the next four years without one additional place. Hawke added that this was comparable in generosity to when PM Tony Abbot in 2015 took 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. Except for one thing – none of this comparison was remotely true. The 12,000 additional places Abbott granted were on top of the annual humanitarian program, and we eventually resettled 36,000 Syrian and Iraqis.

I responded to this late Friday afternoon announcement by calling it both ‘mean and tricky’.

‘Mean’, because it was so ungenerous without one additional place, and, ‘tricky’ because it was nowhere equivalent to Tony Abbot’s generosity. Ironically, he was one who was never known for his generosity to refugees.

For starters, back in Abbott’s time our refugee intake was 18,500 a year. Prime Minister Morrison, upon taking office, reduced that to 13,750. Secondly, those places are already oversubscribed by refugees waiting for entry, and to allocate them to Afghans at 2,500 a year, only displaces those who have been long waiting. ‘Mean’ because other nations like the US, Canada and the UK have been much more generous on a per capita basis. Australia again is shamefully shirking its fair share among the nations engaged in Afghanistan. But to dress this up as being the equivalent of what the Tony Abbott Government did is especially shameful.

The churches are aghast. They are rarely unified and this was the first time in decades we had seen such unity and such preparedness to help with community sponsorship and providing access to their properties and people ready to enrich resettlement. For many of us, it is incomprehensible that a Christian PM who knows the Scriptures and God’s heart for the stranger (refugee) can so disappoint. The moment of hopefulness that we could change the narrative about Australian harshness and open up hearts has been shut down.

Looking forward, the government’s announcement leaves a slither of hope in the wriggle room it provides to review and amend their decision in the future (a compromise gained in my view from last minute desperate appeals by refugee advocates). And, of course, there is the federal election. It is unlikely Labor, running an incredibly ‘small target’ platform, will want to speak up boldly for Afghanistan’s refugees, however, with enough continued public advocacy, they may at least commit to making the 15,000 places announced by Hawke ‘additional’, and this is certainly the call we will continue to make.

So please, continue to pray for the people of Afghanistan, write to your MPs and rally your networks to join our campaign. Our work is not over.

Tim Costello is executive director of Micah Australia which helped form Christians United for Afghanistan

This article originally appeared on Sight Magazine