“People in the headlines today, disappear tomorrow”: A reflection by Andrew Hamilton SJ

  Recently the Australian Government announced that they would be putting an end to offshore processing in Papua New Guinea by the end of this year. That is a cause for celebration.  The places of detention in PNG were brutal places where many people suffered greatly. Their suffering was designed as a warning to others not to flee to Australia by boat.

  At a time when our hearts go out to people who face persecution in Afghanistan, however, the cessation of offshore processing in PNG will be an empty gesture unless Australia has a change of heart to refugees. Many of the people whom Australia sent there have been abandoned to the care of Papua New Guinea.  Among those who spent years on Manus island or Bromana Immigration Centre are many who fled from Afghanistan. Others from Afghanistan are held in detention centres in Australia or on Christmas Island. Still others live in the Australian community on temporary visas in fear of forced return and unable to plan their lives. They are hostages to a cruel and unreasonable refugee policy.

   Australia has a responsibility to people from Afghanistan forced to flee from their nation to seek protection from persecution and death. Australia assisted in the invasion of Afghanistan which intensified local hatreds and forced people to flee. We have a debt especially to those who worked with our military in Afghanistan, both those who have come to Australia and to others at risk in Afghanistan. We should welcome the small increase of places promised to people fleeing Afghanistan and the planned increase in this number. For those who are already in Australia, many have been given only temporary protection visas. This prevents them from sponsoring relatives and from beginning a new life and making their precious contribution to building a generous Australia. They should be given permanent residence and priority be given to their relatives at risk in Afghanistan. 

  People in the headlines today disappear tomorrow. Goodwill too easily also disappears with them. We can help the people of Afghanistan by keeping them in the attention of Government and of the Australian people.  Action for Afghanistan, a diaspora-led campaign developed by the Afghanistan-Australian Advocacy Network have proposed a seven-point plan. To take action, contact your local members of Parliament to express your concern for these brothers and sisters of ours, and also to highlight one or more of the points on the plan.

  Three key asks from this plan include:

  1. Commit to an intake of an additional 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan, focused on those most at risk
  2. Make immediate arrangements to bring the families of refugees from Afghanistan to Australia.
  3. Grant permanent protection to all people from Afghanistan in Australia on temporary protection visas or currently seeking asylum.

  The imminent end of offshore processing on PNG should also make us think again about a policy that has brought such suffering to refugees. Places of detention throughout PNG are emblems of a policy based on deterrence. The Australian Government considered it necessary to make people suffer in order to deter others from trying to come to Australia. That cruel policy also found expression in holding people for many years in detention centres, and leaving them suspended in the community.  They had no avenue to build a decent life in Australia nor any possibility of returning safely to their own nations even if they wanted to. This policy is based on the absurdity that if we allow even a few people in a humanitarian way it will lead to a flood of boats.

  At a time when our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters from Afghanistan we should question this myth and press for a more reasonable and just policy.

Andrew Hamilton SJ is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.