In the week of the Albanese government’s job summit, the immigration department again sent out a raft of letters to bridging visa holders in Queensland advising them it was time to reapply to rollover their permission to stay in Australia. While politicians and sector representatives debated whether we needed skilled and unskilled migrants to tackle the workforce shortfall, a substantial group remain in the country in limbo and barely tapped.
This round of letters does not have the attachment containing the phrase that Labor added post-election victory: “The Australian Government’s policies have not changed and unauthorised maritime arrivals will not be settled permanently in Australia.” There remains crippling fear and powerlessness, however, in a group of people who have waited a decade to know if we will grant them safety.
In the years since most arrived, the world has only become more desperate. The Taliban have taken back Afghanistan, and the account of the women’s soccer team given safe haven in Australia illustrates how nightmarish conditions are for ethnic and religious minorities like the Hazara, or city dwellers who had embraced the opportunities protected by the western presence. Pakistan, whence many refugees from Afghanistan embark, has currently lost one third of its land to epochal floods. The rapid glacial melt augmenting the deluge promises future drought and worsening tensions with India as both nations depend on glacial melt for much of their water supply.
Sri Lanka is a shambles, with starvation and medical shortages hitting the Tamil population even worse than the rest of the country. The Rajapaksa clan’s corruption, ignored by friendly Coalition governments, is only one of the reasons the economy crashed. Like similar nations, they a range of threats to their people’s survival, with IMF loan conditions being a substantial part of the problem.
We can’t be certain why the Albanese government has been so slow to flag what will happen to the processing backlog, and those trapped by Rudd’s desperate promise that maritime arrivals would never settle here. (Not to mention the few hundred unlucky souls abandoned on Manus and Nauru.)
It is clear Labor has overlearnt the lessons that brought Rudd down. Not only do they fear the might of the mining lobby’s PR campaigns, but the myth-making of the Murdoch organs that refugees are an existential threat. There are many factors that caused the arrival of more boats after Rudd ended the Pacific Solution in 2007, push factors large among them. It is clear, however, that the ethically dubious boat turnbacks make maritime arrivals almost impossible. Persecuting individuals as a “deterrent” is a vile reflection on one of the founding nations of the Refugee Convention.
Both Richard Marles and Kristina Keneally echoed a number of harsh talking points belonging to the Coalition in their time in the Shadow ministry. Labor kept Mike Pezzullo as secretary of Home Affairs, a role he’d held since 2018, after he turned on Scott Morrison over the election day text messaging scandal. Pezzullo assumed that role from his previous leadership of the immigration department from 2014. Under his leadership, the nation-building role of immigration was stripped, and Pezzullo’s experience in Customs colonised the department. Asylum seekers were treated like a potential pest outbreak to be extinguished with malice. The system functions to deny refuge to genuine refugees, careless of our treaty obligations. It is uncertain whether Clare O’Neil has the strength or desire to counter Pezzullo or to rebuild a department gutted of quality.
Australia’s humanitarian intake over the last decade has been shamefully low in times of record global displacement. Andrew Giles, immigration minister, has been spruiking a refugee sponsorship program. Labor has reduced the Coalition’s prohibitive costs for the design, but it remains a hollow echo of the exceptional Canadian program that continues to build a warm and welcoming nation with extensive support networks around sponsored arrivals. The 1,500 places that the Australian program plans to allow over three years remains within the current humanitarian allowance – set at a pitiful 13,750 humanitarian visas per year. (Even this small number has not been granted since the pandemic took hold.)
Our treatment of our allies in Afghanistan over the last year has been mortifying. Australia has proven to future local allies that we have no honour and will not stand by them when their value to us has ceased. The imminence of their death has no impact on that equation. Valiant efforts by veterans to counter this dishonour had little impact on a Coalition government where the colour of skin or faith of the applicant is more significant than their need. We found many more places for Ukrainian refugees with a rapidity that highlighted the bigotry at the heart of our failures elsewhere. The small additional commitment to those at risk from the Taliban (that the Morrison government was forced to make to keep church support) was spread over four years. This is no doubt convenient because most of those who wish to come will probably have been murdered by the Taliban.
The Albanese government needs to lead Australians in a discussion about the nation we are to be. Will we allow the Great Replacement fears underpinning Coalition government policy to continue to shape the nation we are building? This myth that (Jewish) elite forces are importing immigrants to replace the white population to be one that the Murdochs allow to be promoted. Are we planning to accept their propaganda, allowing it to mainstream the white supremacist radicalisation taking place on social media?
Instead we should echo the Canadian experiment much more wholeheartedly. There, generous allocations of places have been made to countries in crisis. In addition to those numbers, community groups such as religious organisations can back small groups sponsoring individuals and families to come to Canada. The money required for the process is paid into a bank account to support the sponsored for a year while they find their feet. It is fast, fair and inclusive. Part of the effect has been to foster welcome amongst the broader Canadian community as they engage personally with the new arrivals’ story and settling. We need an amnesty with support for the current caseload and people on temporary visas, to incorporate them into the community and workforce.
It is heartwarming to watch the stories of people embracing the Canadian nation which has worked so efficiently to grant them safe haven, to reunite them with their family, to make them part of community. As an Australian, it hurts to see our failures thrown into stark relief by the contrast.