Moral capacity

The number on its own is terrible enough: in the past seven weeks, 100,000 Afghans have sought asylum from Australia. A second, smaller figure is the more appalling, the one that shows what sort of country this is, how cruel and indifferent it can be: the government has allocated only 3000 places to meet that demand.

Speaking before a senate inquiry this week, David Wilden, a first assistant secretary at the Department of Home Affairs, said the government could choose to take more people. This was entirely within its capacity. But the government has not chosen this. Those 3000 places were a floor, not a ceiling, yet the Morrison government would prefer to give refugees neither.

Since the fall of Kabul, there has been a spike in applications for humanitarian visas. According to Wilden, they have come “in very large volumes daily ever since then”.

Many of these people are families. Some are connected to Australia. Some likely have worked with Australian troops or embassy staff. The volume of applications is so great that the department has not yet sorted through them.

The meanness of Scott Morrison’s position is exceptional. A day after the number of asylum seekers was revealed, leaked advice from the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet showed the country needs two million migrants over the next five years to ensure economic growth and address labour shortages. Likely, they will come.

These two things are not connected, except by opportunism. The government has used migration as a Ponzi scheme for economic growth while at the same time exploiting anxieties about race and a mad, brutal fear of refugees. The country would benefit from taking more asylum seekers. The only thing holding it back is the politics of our government, the grim edge they still believe cruelty towards refugees gives them at the polls.

This trick was John Howard’s first. He massively increased overall migration while prosecuting a decade-long show trial against what he called boat people. As borders reopen, we will see the same sham again. Immigration will necessarily increase. People will be ushered into the country to plug gaps and fill jobs. And refugees will be demonised to remind us that the prime minister is in control of the borders.

Australia bears a special responsibility to the people of Afghanistan. Any retribution meted out by the Taliban against the country’s people will be retribution for a war in which we were centrally involved, a war we lost because we didn’t have a plan for winning it, and one from which finally we ran away.

The simple answer, which is also the just answer, would be to grant more places for refugees, and not only those fleeing the Taliban. It is also the least likely answer. Not because it is too difficult, or because it wouldn’t work, but for the sombre fact that the Morrison government doesn’t want to.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 16, 2021 as "Moral capacity".

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