Trade troops for refugees as Afghanistan worsens

Eureka Street

JOURNALISTS 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 assassination attempt, although those grisly stats will come later. It’s the case number for an elderly Afghan woman 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 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 September 30, the same day the Australian Government announced it would lift a freeze on Afghan asylum claims, which had been in place since April. 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 disproves the Government’s claims. 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 is 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.