The Australian government has sought to assure thousands of Afghan nationals on temporary visas that they will not be sent back to Afghanistan – but advocates say the moratorium doesn’t go far enough to allay their fears.
“No Afghan visa holder currently in Australia will be asked to return to Afghanistan while the security situation there remains dire,” the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, announced Tuesday.
“Afghan citizens currently in Australia on temporary visas will be supported by the Australian government.”
There are about 50,000 Afghanistan-born people in Australia. The government has granted about 8,500 humanitarian visas to Afghans since 2013, including 1,800 visas to Afghan nationals employed by the Australia military or government in Afghanistan and their family members.
More than 4,200 Afghan nationals are living in Australia on temporary visas.
So far the government has made no commitments on an additional humanitarian intake in response to the crisis in Afghanistan, nor on granting permanent visas to those in Australia holding temporary visas.
“Australia will continue to meet our international humanitarian obligations with our generous humanitarian and resettlement program which is flexible and available to address crises in our region,” Hawke said.
Hawke confirmed the move after the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, told the ABC on Tuesday morning: “No Afghan visa holder will be asked to return to Afghanistan at this stage.”
But human rights and refugee groups have been calling on the government to give greater assurance to Afghan nationals, noting that the government had told Myanmar nationals they would be able to stay after the February military coup there.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said the government should “dispense with the fiction that somehow people are going to be likely to be able to return”.
Wong said the government should offer pathways for existing Afghan temporary protection visa holders to remain in Australia permanently.
It should also use its unallocated humanitarian visa capacity to help Afghan nationals most at risk of being targeted by the Taliban, including women, human rights activists and members of minorities.
Wong said the government should also deal with the partner and family visas of Australian citizens, many of whom had been waiting for a long time to have their applications processed.
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She raised fears that the potential military operation to rescue people from Kabul – including interpreters, guards and support staff who helped Australian forces and diplomats in Afghanistan – had been arranged far too late.
“We all hope so and obviously we support these efforts, this mission, the efforts to evacuate people from Afghanistan, but I have to say I fear it is too little, too late,” Wong told the ABC. “Now we’re left waiting and hoping on the success of a last-minute and high-risk operation.”
The Greens senator Nick McKim said Australia had a “moral imperative to provide aid and support” to the people of Afghanistan.
“Pausing deportations to Afghanistan is not nearly enough, and it shows the depths of this government’s lack of compassion.
“Accepting 20,000 humanitarian entrants and offering permanent protection for Afghan citizens already in Australia is the very least that we can do.”
Canada has announced it will resettle an additional 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan in response to the resurgence to power of the Taliban.
The Refugee Council of Australia has written to the prime minister, Scott Morrison, with a number of requests, including supporting people whose asylum claims have previously been rejected to submit new claims in the light of the changed circumstances in Afghanistan.
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The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Paul Power, said the government needed to provide permanent protection to the Afghans on temporary protection visas.
Such a move would recognise “that members of this group are unlikely to be able to return in safety for many years to come and need the assurance that they can continue to live in Australia without the constant fear of forced return”.
Power also called on the government to offer additional refugee resettlement places for Afghan refugees, as it did in 2015 with 12,000 additional places for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. He pointed to Canada’s additional places for Afghans.
“Australia could also urge other resettlement states to do the same, sending a strong and positive message to states receiving Afghan refugees that the world is ready to share responsibility in the protection of lives at risk,” he said.