Conservative Christian churches and a federal Liberal MP are ramping up pressure on the government to fulfil its promise to help more Afghans flee Taliban persecution, amid concerns they are pawns in a domestic political game.
The Australian Christian Lobby is suggesting Afghans seeking protection in Australia are becoming collateral damage in the government’s national security focused re-election campaign.
“I think it’s to look tough and [convey the message] ‘We are going to keep Australia safe’,” says ACL national director of politics Wendy Francis. “I think Australians buy into that.”
Francis joined a delegation of faith leaders who met Immigration Minister Alex Hawke this week to seek an increased Afghan intake. Working together as Christians United for Afghanistan, the group is a rare alliance between progressive and conservative church organisations.
At the meeting, Hawke undertook to “seriously consider” revising his mid-January announcement of 15,000 places for Afghans over four years. That pledge amounts to just under 4000 a year but includes the 4500 evacuated last August. The group asked that he at least make the evacuees extra. He only promised to think about it.
On Wednesday, Hawke said “humanitarian options” would remain “under consideration” in determining numbers. “So I’ve said that to those groups: we will continue to consider it,” Hawke said. “We will continue to work with them and I think we will have more to say in the coming weeks and months about that.”
But the advocates want action now. “Very discouraged by the government’s response” is how Wendy Francis describes her response. “We have a debt that we owe these people. We spent two decades. Men and women went over there. They risked their lives … They’re back here, relatively safe, but they’re dying inside.”
Delegation leader Reverend Tim Costello says the January announcement suggest the government is “shamefully shirking” its responsibilities. He says it amounts to a lower yearly intake of Afghans than before Kabul fell.
“Government backbenchers who I’ve talked to – and, I understand, even some cabinet ministers – believe there should be additional places, similar to what Tony Abbott gave [to Syrian refugees], and can’t understand this announcement.”
Costello says Alex Hawke “couldn’t explain” the numbers. “There is no reason to explain this in my mind other than they’re wanting to retain some fear campaign about refugees, Afghans and people on TPVs [temporary protection visas]. And I am very disappointed.”
Victorian Liberal backbench MP and long-time campaigner for refugees Russell Broadbent echoes the group’s concern at the low numbers and says the government should do more. “It would be easy to identify probably 15,000,” he told The Saturday Paper. “We’d have the ability to do it and we’d do a special allocation of 15,000 people to bring them in.”
Broadbent says there should be no question of Australia helping those trying to flee Afghanistan. “It was our longest war,” he says. “We have an obligation and we should bring these people here … They bleed the same as us. We have an obligation.”
Anglican Bishop of North Sydney Chris Edwards told Hawke this was his first ever lobbying trip to Canberra, such was the seriousness with which his congregations took the issue. While he welcomed the minister’s undertaking and was “very hopeful that he would honour that”, he and the others want more.
Edwards criticised the government’s determination to process visa applications offshore. “No one’s a fan of that,” he says. “These traumatised people need to be cared for carefully. Offshore processing is not a careful treatment.”
Bishop Edwards, whose diocese includes Hawke’s Sydney electorate of Mitchell, was among 50 church leaders from the electorate who joined an online conference with Hawke late last year to press him on the Afghan issue. They intend to keep up the pressure.
Edwards calls the situation in Afghanistan “diabolical” and will urge churchgoers to press politicians on it ahead of the upcoming election. “I’m encouraging people in our churches to write to their local members so this becomes an election issue,” he tells The Saturday Paper.
Wendy Francis is urging her organisation’s largely Pentecostal constituency to do the same.
Francis also pressed Hawke to resolve the circumstances of those asylum seekers on temporary protection visas who are left in limbo. “Alex was a brick wall on that,” she says. “An absolute brick wall.”
Hawke and Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews reintroduced two pieces of immigration legislation this week and used them to attack Labor. The first seeks greater powers to deport foreign citizens convicted of crimes and the other seeks mandatory minimum penalties for firearms offences.
Labor described both bills as a clear attempt to create a political wedge. It voted for both in the house of representatives but with the senate not sitting this week they remain unresolved.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Liberal MP says room for 15,000 Afghans".
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