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Trade troops for refugees as Afghanistan worsens


Australian tank in AfghanistanJournalists and politicians like to talk about the human face of a conflict. But when it comes to the war in Afghanistan and the Australian Government's arbitrary discrimination of Afghan refugees, we don't have a human face. We have a series of human numbers. The first is 1005628.

No it's not the number of casualties, of limbs lost to improvised explosive devices, or the cryptic military code for an assissination attempt, although those grisly stats will come later. It's the case number for an elderly Afghan woman recently ruled to be a genuine refugee.

Ms 1005628 explained she couldn't return to Afghanistan because her 'entire family's political ideology was opposing the Taliban and the Al Qaeda'. Her late son had worked as a government official for many years and had written about his political opinions. She said she would also be targeted because she was a widowed woman and that 'the Afghan authorities were unable to provide security to its citizens as there was a war going on between the Afghan government forces against Al Qaeda and the Taliban'.

The Refugee Review Tribunal accepted her claims and ruled that Australia owed her protection.

This decision was published on 30 September, the same day the Australian Government announced it would lift a freeze on Afghan asylum claims, which had been in place since April. Newly-minted Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Parliament that now the freeze has been lifted, 'the percentage of successful refugee claims is likely to be lower than in the past'. This assertion was based on 'more exhaustive country information'.

Yet this country information, which was not specified, runs counter to the most recent, publicly available documents on Afghanistan. Media reports, UN documents and Refugee Review Tribunal hearings all indicate that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and that ethnic and religious minority groups are still being persecuted.

In fact, even our Diggers are asking for reinforcements, prompting the Opposition to make a predictable call for more troops. Yet if Afghanistan is increasingly unsafe for highly trained, professional soldiers, it must also be increasingly unsafe for asylum seekers, many of whom fled the Taliban in the first place.

The most recent report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was released on September 21. If conditions have improved, this document should mention it. Instead, statistic after statistic proves the Government's claims wrong. The situation isn't getting better. It is getting much, much worse.

Compared to the same period last year, the number of security incidents is up 69 per cent, the use of improvised explosive devices is up 82 per cent, and the number of casualties caused by anti-government elements is up 53 per cent.

The most shocking part is the indiscriminate nature of the bloodshed. According to the UNAMA's mid-year report, the number of civilians injured or killed in the first six months of 2010 was 31 per cent higher than for the same period in 2009. The number of civilians assassinated or executed by anti-government forces soared by 95 per cent.

And as to Gillard's claim that 'progress is being made'? 'Much of the progress achieved is fragile and continues to be overshadowed by the deterioration in the security situation,' states the report.

Let's not forget that these unsafe conditions might be doubly dangerous for the sort of Afghans who become asylum seekers. In a letter prepared for her Refugee Review Tribunal hearing, Ms 1005628 wrote that her family 'strongly supported democracy, freedom of expression and human rights' and that 'these rights were violated not only by the Taliban, but by warlords, provincial rulers and even by some prominent government figures in the present Kazi [sic] Government'.

The Refugee Review Tribunal, which also has access to 'exhaustive country information' on Afghanstan, accepted her claims.

If Afghanistan is not safe for independent women like Ms 1005628 who believe in freedom of speech and democracy, it is not safe for minority groups either. On 30 April this year, when the freeze on Afghan asylum applications was still in place, the Refugee Review Tribunal found that 'the Hazara and Shia people in Afghanistan still suffer a real chance of serious harm from other and more powerful ethnic groups in Afghanistan'.

Yet the Australian Government still seems determined to send Afghan asylum seekers home. And because most arrive by boat, they don't get access to the Refugee Review Tribunal, which can independently assess their claims. Instead, they go through a Refugee Status Assessment, after which the Minister decides if they can apply for a visa. This means the Immigration Department has extraordinary powers to decide the fate of these people.

Let's hope those powers are being used judiciously. The conflict in Afghanistan is escalating and the situation is increasingly unsafe for both soldiers and civilians. If we are thinking about taking further military action to counter the Taliban, we must also think about offering sanctuary to those fleeing the regime. 

Greg FoysterGreg Foyster is a freelance journalist who has written for The Age, The Big Issue, Crikey and New Matilda. Greg's website

Topic tags: colin long, afghanistan, asylum seekers, troops, gillard, abbott



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Existing comments

One cannot but help notice the high number of young men among the ranks of Afghanis who arrive in this country by boat and maybe even more by air. I would have thought they would be resolved to stay home and fight for a future of freedom, democracy, human rights and political decency in their own country. One cannot imagine hordes of young British men applying for asylum during the blitzing of their homeland by the Nazis in the 1940s.

Sylvester | 08 October 2010  

2,200 of Australia's 5000 immigration prisoners are Afghan , most of them Hazara men originating in Ghazni province.Why are Aussie troops not defeating the murderous Taliban there so the Hazara can stay home and our troops can come home, mission accomplished?

Refugees are reluctant "migrants" and most would chose to stay home if only that were safe. The love of the homeland and their own people never goes away for the vast majority.Like the ethnic Chinese among the Vietnamese boatpeople from 30 years ago, most Hazara, as members of a persecuted ethnic group, could be assessed very quickly - and resettled not detained.They pose no risk to national security or ASIO reports to Parliament would have said so.Indefinite detention is torture.

Frederika Steen | 08 October 2010  

Thank you Greg for this appalling story. Not appalling because of your research or writing but appalling because it is yet another picture of the moral bankruptcy of successive Australian governments from both sides of politics since the notorious Tampa and "children overboard" incidents.

The many Australians who see beyond the coastline of our too comfortable nation are effectively disenfranchised by this uniformity of policy against refugees.

It is absurd as well as inhumane that we block access to a share of that comfort for those fleeing their homelands because their political positions are similar to those for which we are fighting in their homelands.

While people like Ms 1005628 are literally fleeing for their lives, we are carping about "orderly process" and "jumping the queue". We encourage fear in our society with outright fictions like "armada of small boats" and "defending our coastline".

Without any policy difference between the major parties we can only be ashamed by the inhumanity of refugee policy. We are doubly shamed because that policy is ballot box oriented, reflecting the attitude of many of our fellow Australians.

What has to happen in this country to shock us out of our selfish complacency?

Ian Fraser | 08 October 2010  

I must agree with Sylvester. Why are not Afghan men fighting for their country? The Shia Hazara have long been supported militarily by Shia Iran. It is absurd that Australia is fighting for these people in Afghanistant but they do not want to fight for themselves. All Afghan males of military age should be taken from refugee camps and trained to fight for their homeland unless there is a good excuse.

Godfrey Saint | 08 October 2010  

Sylvester and Godfrey, please put your question to the Hazara Australians living among us, fellow citizens, and hear their personal stories and explanations. That's more compelling than cold reason.

Frederika Steen | 08 October 2010  

There's a great deal of difference between British men of the 1940s, who had been raised in a relatively safe, coherent environment with a positive self image, and the Hazaras in Afghanistan, who have been raised in turmoil, oppression and without proper education - the young men being spoken of here would never have experienced any other life than that. To expect them to behave like the British in 1940s is ludicrous and incredibly naive.

Erik H | 08 October 2010  

Sylvester, those young men are to be used as cannon fodder and mine clearers, Hazara by tradition are not warriors like the Pashtuns. Why on earth does it matter than men ask for protection.

The lunatic notion that they should stay and have their heads cut off is just that.

And many young Brits and Aussies did defect from the wars, they defect today.

As for the success rate for Afghans being a good deal lower.

in 2008/09 it was 99% and fell to 84%, not 30% as the morons keep claiming.

Now I hear Bowen is running all over Asia again to stop refugees, something he has no right to do.

Australia is a putrid, racist little rogue state at the back end of nowhere that thinks it can break the law of the land with impunity and our media are just as bad as they lead cheer squads to break the law.

I wonder why we never hear about the 1200 or so Chinese who claim each year with only 15-20% of them being successful, or the Egyptians, Jordanians, Malaysians, Indians and others from 50 countries.

Marilyn | 08 October 2010  

Perhaps the young men who are refugees do not see a military solution in political situation in Afghanistan. They wouldn't be alone of course: Even the US military officials can hardly form a military solution there. McChrystal and Pettraeus have both put forward solutions that have more in common with International development principles than military war making. Yet these are being necessarily poorly 'implemented' by a structure that actively prepares its agents [soldiers] for offensive killing.

But thank you at least for the link between the 9 year [+30yr??] war and the continuous stream of refugees.

Australia must stop aiding and abetting the US in their unjust and immoral wars. Stop training with US troops, stop providing Bases for US military use, stop fighting along side. We must purposefully hinder these objectives and withdraw our troops and apply them to their proper purpose of a defensive army with a capability for proactive reconstruction.

Margaret Pestorius | 08 October 2010  

What can we do when the only political party (of those that people take notice of) that is not contemptible in its attitude to refugees is contemptible in its attitude to the unborn?

Gavan Breen | 08 October 2010  

Gavin that is a cheap shot. Unborn eggcells are not human beings in any sense that they can be shot or starved or bombed to bits.

Marilyn | 08 October 2010  

Sorry but national policy should be based on reason. The Shia Hazara are warriors, hence their participation in the Northern Alliance in the 1990s. The Hazara enjoyed substantial Iranian support, hence they survived. More broadly, all Afghan men are obligated to defend their homes rather than expect us to do it for them.

Godfrey Saint | 09 October 2010  

I add my voice to support Sylvester and Godfrey Saint. The regrettable fact is that at times one must take up arms against a brutal and cruel foe. If the Hazara are not traditionally warlike, then they had better learn quickly. The West will not be around forever to protect them.

If ever our country is invaded, will these men be prepared to fight for their adopted land? Or are we too putrid, racist and at the back end of nowhere to be worth defending?

Patrick James | 10 October 2010  

There is absolutely no parallel, Sylvester, between an external attack on Britain from the air in WW11 and the persecution being suffered by Hazara men within their own country.The reason the young men flee is that they are prime targets for persecution.

James Sharp | 11 October 2010  

Marilyn, I wasn't talking about eggs.

Gavan Breen | 11 October 2010  

There is no good reason that Afghan men should be here being resettled while Australian men are there fighting and dying for Afghanistan. The Afghan male is a very experienced soldier and warrior. While ever there is a war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the Afghans should be fighting it, as the Poles and others fought the Nazis even when Poland was taken by the Nazis and the USSR in 1939. Spare me the tears and cries for empathy. Australia cannot be the champion of every do-gooder cause and our blood and treasure should not be spilled over an internal Islamic feud.

Godfrey Saint | 13 October 2010  

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