Cruel to the end

To understand the inhumanity of Australia’s position on refugees from Afghanistan, it helps to understand the self-deception at the heart of our immigration policy. Decades spent arguing that any form of compassion would undermine the system have deadened our politics. They have created a kind of moral numbness that puts decisions outside the reach of logic or decency. To question one part of this would collapse all of it, and so no questions are asked.

As early as June, if not earlier, Australia was warned that its decision to leave Afghanistan would put at risk thousands of lives. Our government did not entertain special support at this time because that part of its imagination had already been closed down. Scott Morrison wasn’t taken by surprise this week: he was already in the grip of indifference, a kind of indifference necessary to live with the refugee policy he has spent years shaping.

With the closure of our embassy in May, Australia became the first allied nation to withdraw its diplomats from the country in which for 20 years we had been waging war. The decision drew private criticism from the United States and from Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she and then Afghan president Ashraf Ghani had committed to “a new chapter” in the relationship. This week, he fled the country in a helicopter full of money.

As allied forces began to leave, the British government established a special unit in Kabul to manage visa applications from Afghan staff. America prepared the evacuation of thousands of people. Australia directed Afghans to a 35-page application document, to be completed online in a country with limited internet.

This is not new. In 2013, as Australian troops withdrew from southern Afghanistan, soldiers were told not to help their interpreters in applying for asylum. As retired major Stuart McCarthy, who was deputy head of that force extraction unit, told Karen Middleton: “We were told verbally, and to pass this order down to our troops: ‘You are not to assist your interpreters in filling out the paperwork.’ ”

Months ago he was already warning the Morrison government what would happen this week. “If we don’t do this now,” he said, “a lot more lives are going to be lost and our government is going to have blood on its hands.”

Peter Dutton’s response is slander. For years he has warned that sick refugees are paedophiles. His first impulse is to say that the Afghans who served alongside Australian troops might be terrorists. Some of them worked for al-Qaeda. Some gave support to Daesh.

Morrison talks as he must in his sleep: “We will not be offering a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship. We will not be allowing people to enter Australia illegally, even at this time. Our policy has not changed.”

The cruelty of this is hard to comprehend, except both sides of politics have agreed to it for 20 years. It is the cruelty of a country that works hard to pretend there is no world beyond its shores.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 21, 2021 as "Cruel to the end".

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