By Riona Moodley

When Saigon fell in 1975, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Vietnam to countries across South-East Asia in search of safety. A relatively small number of Vietnamese refugees, some 2,059 people, travelled to Australia by boat. In response to the humanitarian crisis, then Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser agreed to resettle more than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees, including all who arrived in Australia by boat. Speaking in 1981, Fraser observed: “The problem of refugees from Indo-China is a human problem of vast proportions which affects all of us. It is a problem which needs to be tackled at the international level.”

The same can now be said of Australia’s obligation to the people of Afghanistan following the Taliban’s return to power. After its two-decade involvement in a war in Afghanistan, the Australian government has a moral and ethical duty to honour its commitment not to abandon the people of Afghanistan.

As a party to the UN Refugee Convention, Australia has an international obligation to provide protection to Afghan refugees who have sought asylum in Australia, regardless of their mode of entry.  

Unfortunately, however, the Government’s response so far to the escalating refugee crisis has been grossly inadequate.

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the government would commit to resettle at least 3,000 Afghan nationals this financial year, this number would not be additional, but rather allocated within its annual humanitarian resettlement quota of 13,750 places.

This is a far cry from the generous commitments made by Fraser’s government towards people fleeing Vietnam. Morrison’s response also pales in comparison to contributions by Prime Ministers Bob Hawke, who resettled over 42,000 Chinese students following the Tiananmen massacre, and Tony Abbott, who committed to resettle an additional 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in 2015. 

Other nations have stepped up their response in the crisis in Afghanistan. Canada, for instance, announced it would expand its humanitarian program to resettle an additional 20,000 Afghan nationals. Australia has the capacity to follow suit.

An open letter, signed by close to 150,000 Australians, calls on the Government to not only expand resettlement places but also grant permanent protection to Afghan asylum seekers and refugees on temporary protection visas in Australia. 

Mr Morrison so far insists that those Afghan refugees who came to Australia by boat will not be given permanent residence because they did “not come the right way.” 

To be clear, there is no “right way” to seek asylum. To suggest that there is fundamentally ignores the realities faced by refugees who are forced to flee their country because their lives, and those of their families, are threatened. The Refugee Convention explicitly requires state parties, like Australia, not to penalise refugees for their mode of entry for this very reason. 

And yet, this is precisely what the Morrison Government seeks to do with Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews recently warning Afghan refugees that they would have “zero chance” of settling in Australia if they try to come by boat. To this end, the Government is also embarking on a media campaign to dissuade Afghan refugees from travelling irregularly to Australia. Thus, rather than seek to provide solutions to the unfolding humanitarian crisis, the Government’s primary response has so far been to introduce greater obstacles for Afghan refugees to seek asylum and thereby, also shift responsibility to other countries. 

This position is not only unlawful; it lacks moral responsibility for the plight of Afghan refugees.

The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has led the Government (amongst other countries) to withdraw from its embassy in Kabul and evacuate its military forces. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan nationals are now seeking to do the same. 

The recent attacks at Kabul international airport further highlight the grave security risks faced by Afghans wanting to leave the country through “regular” pathways. Moreover, given the limited resettlement opportunities currently available internationally, most Afghan refugees will have no alternative but to travel irregularly to seek protection in countries elsewhere, including Australia. 

If the Government is serious about disincentivising irregular maritime travel, it must dramatically expand “regular” pathways for the Afghan people to enter Australia. At a bare minimum, this should include a resettlement offer of no less than 20,000 additional places, and resuming evacuation efforts for Afghans and Australian citizens from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan. 

Afghans already in Australia on temporary protection visas deserve more than a promise that they will not be returned to Afghanistan. The Government must grant them permanent protection in Australia, including rights to family reunification.

Fraser stood on the right side of history in his humanitarian response towards Vietnamese refugees. It is now his greatest legacy. 

Scott Morrison has a unique opportunity to do the same. This, however, will require a greater show of compassion and international leadership than has been evident thus far. Mr Morrison’s challenge is to rise to the occasion on Afghanistan, as his predecessors have done before him. 


Riona Moodley is an Australian lawyer and PhD researcher/affiliate of UNSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.

Image: Repatriated passengers from Afghanistan arrive in Australia and are assisted by government officials. Credit: ADF/LAC Sam Price.