Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week pointed to the government’s closure of Australia’s embassy in Afghanistan in May as a good decision for which he had been criticised.
More credibly, it was a bad decision, on principle but also very likely for practical reasons.
The scramble by Western countries to evacuate their nationals and Afghans who had assisted them was always destined to be chaotic.
But it is possible, if we had retained a small contingent of embassy staff in place to the end, we might have been able to process the Afghans more efficiently, thus smoothing — even slightly — the exit.
When shutting the embassy, the government emphasised the security danger. That could have been minimised, as some other countries did. Anyway, diplomats should be the last to turn off the lights, not the first.
The Morrison government’s slowness in processing the Afghans helpers has left it open to the criticism of “too little too late” (inevitably it was likened to the vaccine rollout).
Viewed broadly, its reaction to the Taliban takeover has found the government scoring relatively low on the compassion meter, and relatively high on that measuring risk avoidance. And keeping an eye on the politics.
The crisis has put three cohorts of Afghans in the spotlight – the former interpreters and others who assisted the Australians; people offshore (in Afghanistan or elsewhere) who will seek entry as refugees; and those in Australia on temporary protection visas (TPVs) who arrived by boat.
The government says 430 former local staff and their family members have been brought out since April (before the current evacuation). But there are more former helpers to come.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton is particularly concerned with risk minimisation in the assessment process.
Dutton told the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas, “You and many other journalists would be screaming down the line at me if one person was brought in that committed an atrocity in our country”.
Dutton is highly attuned to security issues; he also probably has in mind the Coalition base.
Nobody denies there must be stringent vetting. In some cases, people who assisted Australia later changed allegiance – that’s the nature of Afghanistan. Obviously they don’t get through.
But while all reasonable care has to be taken, it is impossible – realistically – to avoid a small element of risk (on a strict no-risk principle, many people would never be let out of our gaols).
A number of Australian veterans who served in Afghanistan have been vocal about doing the right thing by the interpreters. Given how solicitous it is of the veterans community, criticism from them — which is also mixed with their wider critiques of the war and the withdrawal – is uncomfortable for the government.
Separate from the evacuation of Afghans, the government announced Australia will take 3,000 refugees this financial year, while anticipating the number would be higher.
The modest figure was immediately (to Morrison’s annoyance) set against the ambition of countries such as Canada, which has pledged to accept 20,000. Then there were comparisons with the performance of former prime ministers (Fraser, 55,000 Vietnamese refugees; Hawke 42,000 Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square massacre; Abbott, 12,000 Syrians after the civil war).
Moreover, the government said Afghans would be accommodated within Australia’s 13,750 annual humanitarian program (which, incidentally, has a lot of spare capacity due to COVID). So the bottom line was substitution – more Afghan refugees and fewer refugees from some other places.
It was quickly clear demand for places would be strong. Andrew Hastie, assistant minister for defence who fought with the SAS in Afghanistan, said his office had been “deluged over the last four or five days with requests. I know other MPs and senators across the country are having the same experience.”
After a meeting with Afghan community leaders on Thursday Morrison, who’s under pressure to do more, said: “We see that as a floor, not a ceiling, so we think we can achieve more than three. If the overall program has to be expanded[…] it will be.
"Our humanitarian program runs every single year, and I foresee […] the Afghan cohort in our humanitarian program having a very strong presence in years to come.”
Both the refugees and evacuees will have permanent residency, which brings a secure future as well as the opportunity to sponsor the arrival of family members.
Access to family reunion is a right the Afghans living here on TPVs don’t have (although their family members will be able to apply for the dedicated refugee intake).
All but a handful of the more than 4,500 Afghans on TPVs came here by boat, many years ago. The current crisis has prompted calls for them to be given permanent settlement.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said: “We need to give them the certainty of Australian citizenship on a permanent basis, rather than some pretence that somehow their circumstances are temporary. They are not. And they need to be given that security.”
But Morrison is adamant. They did not come “the right way”, and affording them permanent status would breach the government’s border control policy.
“I want to be very clear about that. I want to send a very clear message to people smugglers in the region that nothing’s changed,” he said on Wednesday. “I will not give you a product to sell and take advantage of people’s misery. My government won’t do it. We never have and we never will.”
It’s a trade-off of risk and politics on one hand versus compassion on the other. There is no possibility these people will ever be repatriated to Afghanistan. Would giving them permanency really set off the people smugglers? Even if there was any attempt to test the border, we know the navy has capability to deal with that.
The political element is obvious. Labor has always been vulnerable on the border protection issue, and Albanese has given possible ammunition to the government. The Coalition would have to be careful using it, however, when there is a lot of public sympathy for the Afghans.
On the government’s policy, these Afghans who have become members of the Australian community, many of them working in occupations where labour is in demand, are forever to be denied the assurance about their futures that permanent residency brings. They deserve better.
In this Afghanistan moment – which is one of reflection and regret for the failure of the allies’ aspirations for that nation – we show the world what sort of country we are. We should display a more generous character.