At the Olympics our refugees made us proud, now the Australian Government must make us proud and help those trapped in Afghanistan

Shankar Kasynathan, Amnesty International campaigner for an improved Community Sponsorship Programme for refugees, shines a spotlight on Australia’s role on the world stage right now.

Federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s response to the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan is at total odds with what I felt this country was about, just a couple of weeks ago, as we sat around our television sets watching one of our South Sudanese-born heroes, run for us all. 

Initially only confirming that Australia would do the very minimum in not sending people back to danger and potentially death – the principle of non-refoulment in international law – the Minister last night also offered a miserly 3000 humanitarian visas, when we have capacity for many, many more.

During the Olympics our nation stopped for the evening to watch and celebrate the athleticism of a refugee whose family fled war torn Sudan and found safety in Australia. Peter Bol’s achievements on the track in Tokyo were worth celebrating. We were rightly proud of him both as a representative of our Australian Olympic team and also of ourselves as a nation for being the kind of society that provided a safe haven for Peter and his family when they were fleeing danger. 

In the immediate moments after his race, Peter’s plea to all of us was to remember that he is more than a refugee. He too is just human, trying to do the best that he can.  

The irony only weeks later, in reading Minister Hawke’s response to the scale of the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, is his apparent inability to recognise our shared humanity. The Minister’s dismissal of whether Australia should be offering more in this dark hour, seemed to be lacking in just that: a basic principle of humanity. The ability to recognise the mass scale of human suffering.   

Today across Australia, we have a vast number of refugees living in our communities – many of them from Afghanistan. Humans, all of them, trying to do the best they can. Some of them are serving in our hospitals, schools and other parts of society, trying to keep our country going through these challenging times. In this way they are not only doing the best they can for themselves, but they are also doing the best they can for the rest of us. They should be celebrated too, for what they give to us as well as what we give to them – just like Peter Bol.

Over the last four years, Amnesty International’s My New Neighbour campaign has been working with communities and diaspora groups across Australia that want to see a better Community Support Program (CSP); one that allows local groups and organisations to sponsor a refugee who can then become part of their neighbourhood. Throughout that time we have learnt one consistent truth across communities small and large:  Australians benefit from and enjoy the strength and connection of “the neighbourhood”, and at the core of that is an empathy that seeds our care for our neighbours.  

For the past 18 months though, the CSP program along with the annual humanitarian intake agreed by the Government has been on hold. When the borders shut in a bid to keep COVID-19 out, refugees along with thousands of Australians were left stranded overseas.

The catastrophic impact of this approach is now unfolding in Kabul. You don’t need to have a daughter, sister, niece, or mother to realise how horrifying it would be to have virtually nothing now standing between you and the Taliban regime with nowhere safe you can turn.

That deep empathy we felt when we celebrated Peter Bol making history in the Olympics, also lends itself to grief and fear when we sit with our Afghan friends in our neighbourhoods and watch this tragedy unfolding. It can also lead to anger. What are we doing to help?

Canada, which has had a successful CSP model in place for years, is stepping up and offering 20,000 additional places to Afghans now desperately seeking refuge. We are calling for our country to do the same – just as we did in the Syrian crisis in 2015. 

The Government must immediately announce an increase to our humanitarian intake and reopen the borders to let refugees in. It must also act to protect Afghan nationals in Australia on temporary visas by extending their visas indefinitely. 

And it must look at ways it can help respond to the humanitarian crisis going forward. A fair community refugee sponsorship program like the one in Canada works and people right around the country are ready to welcome refugees from Afghanistan and elsewhere into their communities. Now is the moment for Minister Hawke to build a fair, just and lasting model of refugee sponsorship that makes sense to us all. He has the power to make this happen now and now is the time we need to see action – and compassion – from our Government.

Australia and its political leaders must not only embrace the contributions of refugees to Australia when it features Olympic stardom. It must also embrace those who have yet to reach these shores, but who desperately need our help. These are our friends, schoolmates and work colleagues of the future, and they need our help now, today. 

When we accept we have a moral responsibility for those we have never met, who are just human and want to do the best they can, then we can feel truly proud as a nation.

Amnesty has been advocating for a road to refuge, in the form of community sponsorship, for almost 4 years. This crisis highlights how our work is challenging injustice and could save lives.

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