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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan

JAMAL, Mr Ahmad Shuja, Special Adviser, Refugee Council of Australia [by video link]

POWER, Mr Paul, Chief Executive Officer, Refugee Council of Australia [by video link]


CHAIR: We now go to the Refugee Council of Australia. I welcome you both and thank you for your time. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in evidence has been provided to you. Would you like to make an opening statement before the committee proceeds to questions?

Mr Power : Sure. Thank you, Senator, for the opportunity to speak today. You will have seen the Refugee Council's supplementary submission in which we expressed concern about the inadequacy of the government's response through the refugee and humanitarian program. I think the most impressive aspect of the government's response to the crisis since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has certainly been the evacuation of 4,300 Afghan nationals. When the evacuation process started, no-one expected Australia could evacuate such a significant number of people. I think everyone involved in this process should be truly proud of what has been achieved.

The government response since then, however, has been quite disappointing. When we analysed immigration minister Alex Hawke's recent announcement of 10,000 humanitarian and 5,000 family migration visas over four years for Afghan nationals, we note that there won't be many more than 6,000 humanitarian visas remaining once, as expected, the vast majority of people who arrived on subclass 449 visas have applied for, and received, humanitarian visas. By comparison, in the four years to June 2019, well before the current crisis began, 6,125 Afghan nationals arrived on humanitarian visas over that four-year period. The 5,000 family visas for Afghans over four years is, in fact, lower than the number of family visas issued in the four years to June 2019, when 7,314 family visas were issued to Afghan nationals, or the four years to June 2020, when 8,140 visas were granted. So once the 4,300 evacuees apply for and receive permanent visas, there will be fewer humanitarian and family visas available for Afghans over four years than were issued over four years prior to the current crisis.

What makes this worse is that the government has cut 28,382 visas out of the refugee and humanitarian program since the 2019 election. The 2019 budget, which was delivered just before the election was called, included a humanitarian program of 18,750 visas a year over the four years of the forward estimates. The government's plans were to issue 75,000 humanitarian visas between July 2019 and June 2023. That figure has since been reduced to less than 47,000. The government cut 5,000 places per year over three years from the program from July 2020 and, because of the COVID pandemic, failed to issue 13,382 of the remaining visas between March 2020 and June 2021. By contrast, the migration program exceeded its target of 160,000 places last financial year, despite the pandemic.

Compared to the loss of 28,382 humanitarian visas in less than two years, the request for an additional intake of 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan is very modest. As senators know, this call for an additional intake has received wide support from across the Australian community—from churches, veterans, Afghan community groups, non-government organisations and many individual Australians—and this is in light of the seriousness of the crisis and the extent of Australia's involvement in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. When the Abbott government in 2015 offered 12,000 additional humanitarian visas on top of the annual program for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, this resulted in 39,146 Syrians and Iraqis receiving humanitarian visas in the four years to June 2019. This was four times larger than the number of humanitarian visas now being offered over four years to Afghan nationals.

As you're aware, I'm joined by Ahmad Shuja Jamal, who is now based in Brisbane and working with the Refugee Council as a special adviser. Shuja, until late August, worked for the government of Afghanistan as director-general for international relations and regional cooperation at the Afghan national security council. He has a unique perspective on the situation within Afghanistan and the region, and also on how a well-targeted response from Australia could make a strategically important contribution, so I'll pass to Shuja.

CHAIR: Mr Jamal, would you like to perhaps flesh out that which Mr Power has just discussed? We'd be very interested. And we thank you for the work that you did not only in Afghanistan but also the work you are doing here in Australia.

Mr Jamal : Thank you, Senator, and thank you for this opportunity. As you know, I am a former official of the Afghan republic. For the two years before the collapse of the republic, I lived in Kabul and worked very closely with the Australian embassy on issues of bilateral importance. Not only do I have relatives in Afghanistan, I also maintain contact with friends, former government colleagues, activists, journalists and people from the aviation, humanitarian and diplomatic communities in Afghanistan. Some of these people are in hiding. Others are desperately trying to get out. Yet others are agitating for a freer Afghanistan. My evidence today is informed by some of these sources. The situation in Afghanistan remains dire, unfortunately. The UN has called it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and, although aid delivery is scaling up, Afghans complain of uneven distribution, including distribution to Taliban members and supporters.

The Taliban continue to consolidate power and deepen their campaign of retribution against opponents and minority groups, including Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Pashtuns in the opposition. The regime's consolidation of power betrays a lack of regard for international calls, including by Australia, to form an inclusive government. The Taliban also introduced more repressive social measures about women's public appearance and men's beards and restrictions on teenage girls' education. The UN and US Treasury departments' humanitarian carve-outs to their sanction regimes while welcome are falling short of their intended effect because international banks are skittish about engaging with Afghan banks for fear of running afoul of sanctions. Australia should work with partner nations to reassure these financial institutions to maximise the impact of the humanitarian exceptions.

The enforced disappearance of Tamana Paryani and her sisters from their home in January after they protested against the Taliban is a reminder of how the Taliban deal with dissent. Former members of Afghan security forces and others associated with the government have also been targeted, often taken from their homes, killed and their bodies dumped. Alia Azizi, a former police official, went missing after she reported for duty last October. She is a Hazara and is feared abducted by the Taliban.

Although neighbouring countries remain unreceptive to Afghans, diplomatic work with countries like Pakistan can help at-risk Afghans awaiting resettlement to gain access to and remain there in safety. This is a ray of hope for at-risk individuals who potentially qualify for Australian visas, and I urge Australia to consider this. It can literally save lives.

Respected senators, before the world's eyes Afghanistan is sinking into an authoritarian regime, with summary executions, enforced disappearances, gender apartheid and a stifled media. Australia and the international community could do something about it. They hold the cards. They have what the Taliban crave, which is international legitimacy. But, before countries with different priorities step in and give the Taliban just that, it is important for Australia and its partner nations to coordinate actions quickly and seek a more permanent, nationally representative and rights-respecting political arrangement in Afghanistan. This remains possible. The Taliban themselves call their de facto regime an 'interim' government. Afghan politicians, activists inside the country and diaspora are organising in this direction. It is time for the world to amplify their voices.

More concretely, senators, diplomatic representations of the Afghan republic accredited to various host nations remain active despite the many difficulties. They provide critical consular services, in the case of Australia, to Afghan Australians, permanent residents and their families. Yet their ability to continue to provide these services is not guaranteed, partly because of evolving host country dispositions. I urge Australia to continue to enable the mission in Canberra to provide these services. Normalising the Taliban will send the wrong message to Afghans whose aspirations are not represented by the authoritarian regime. Equally importantly it normalises an instance of state formation and behaviour that runs counter to values shared by Australians and Afghans. How Australia and the international community choose to deal with the Taliban at this moment will reverberate in history. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Jamal. I'm going to ask Senator Rice, because she is going to another committee hearing, if she has any questions she'd like to ask before she has to go to the other committee.

Senator RICE: Thanks, Chair, and thank you, Mr Power and Mr Jamal, for your evidence today. It's really powerful. Mr Power, thank you very much for reiterating the need for Australia to be doing more and how we're not playing our global role given the desperate situation in Afghanistan. Thank you for that.

Mr Jamal, you say that countries like Australia 'hold the cards'. In terms of pressure on the Taliban, what more do you think Australia could be doing to reduce the worst excesses of the Taliban? In particular, do you think there's more we could be doing in terms of pressuring Pakistan as well? You talked about the role that Pakistan is playing, but we know that at the moment Pakistan is not allowing many refugees to flow through, that they've got to have a passport and they've got to have a Pakistan visa.

Thirdly, I'm glad you mentioned the awful situation of the diplomats of the Afghan republic in various embassies around the world. Do you think Australia could be doing more in terms of providing refugee status and visas for those people? I've heard stories of some in some countries who have basically not been able to get any country to accept them, so they're just stuck at the moment, still in their posts, but under huge pressure from the Taliban in their posts.

Mr Jamal : Thank you for all of these very important questions. These are some of the questions that we've worked on with the Afghan diplomatic corps and the Australian government, and also people in Afghanistan at the moment. We've heard various reasons from the Australian government about working with Pakistan. I believe that the Pakistani policy is that they have kept their borders open to Afghans wanting to come into Pakistan but that they've not issued visas to a single Afghan over a long period of time—several months, in fact, over the past year or so. This has given rise to desperation and also to people paying very large amounts to brokers who then feign to provide them with visas from the embassy.

That has created a situation of abuse that I think is certainly avoidable. It is also avoidable because certain countries—and it's my understanding that Ecuador and Brazil are among them—offer visas to Afghans if they could demonstrate that they have an active application for settlement in the US. That includes, as an example, applications for humanitarian parole. All they have to demonstrate is a reference number confirming their application is active. I think Australia can actually enter into a conversation with Pakistan, at least to enable Afghans who have active resettlement cases with Australia to be there in safety and to make use of the better conditions of life in that country.

In respect of your first question, about what Australia can do, I think that it's important that Australia join hands with other like-minded countries. With respect to the Taliban, I think a coordinated voice and action are a lot more effective. That's not just with the Taliban but also because it can help their biggest regional supporter, Pakistan, to play a more constructive role in that direction. At the moment, the Taliban actually crave international legitimacy. They're dying for a single country to recognise them politically and diplomatically, although countries like Pakistan have de facto relationships; without recognising an accredited ambassador, they're working with the Taliban at various levels. I think it's time for Australia to use that leverage of being able to offer recognition and support to the Taliban with other like-minded nations—nations who care for the same values that Australia does. This is to urge not only Pakistan but also the Taliban; there's an incentive we can use at this moment. There's nothing more important to the Taliban than that.

The Taliban also crave delisting from the UN sanctions and from under the US sanctions. Those are the kinds of normalising efforts that the international community could use actively to seek to change the Taliban's behaviour, irrespective of influence through Pakistan. I think it's important that deep thought is given to this and that work is done quickly rather than slowly, because other nations are stepping in and giving the Taliban what they want without having the same kind of values-based approach that we think Australia should have at the moment, given the Taliban excesses.

With respect to the diplomatic missions: there are indications that certain countries in the world are actually changing their dispositions towards Afghan diplomatic missions, including actions such as freezing their bank accounts or giving them ultimatums to close down their embassies and to hand the keys over to the host nation. We think this is a move in exactly the wrong direction, not only at a time when are there many Afghan Australians and their relatives who want consulate services but also as a message to the world that these diplomats, who are already accredited and working under dire circumstances, are being thwarted in a way that's counterproductive—not just to the citizens of these countries who are of Afghan origin but also by sending the wrong message on normalising the Taliban. With respect to your question about what can be done for individual diplomats, I think that, beyond just enabling them to continue to do their work, including offering essential services, it is essential that, when they come to the Australian government seeking protection and seeking asylum, legitimate—I think very legitimate—cases are heard fairly and are given due process rights and, in my opinion, heard sympathetically. Thank you.

Senator RICE: Thanks very much.

CHAIR: I'll go to Senator Abetz now.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you for your submission. It's very helpful. Mr Jamal, you stressed the importance of a coordinated effort. I see that as being very important, because otherwise the Taliban, which is so anxious to get some recognition, will seek to pick us off one by one, rather than having a very strong, united voice. So I ask: what's your view in relation to Australia delivering its aid et cetera through the United Nations, given the horrific situation that you described in your opening statement as to how the Taliban behaves? It seems to me that there's the potential, at least for well-meaning but small NGOs, to be taken in by the Taliban and to deliver things that they want and need, rather than having this strong, united voice from the world community.

Mr Jamal : I think that's a very important question. Through the Refugee Council of Australia, we have called for Australia to increase its humanitarian commitment to Afghanistan as part of the UN's humanitarian response plan. We think that, at this current juncture, the UN has a confluence of multiple things going for it. First, it is willing to step up. Second, it is capable of scaling its operations across the country. Third, it has a depth of understanding across the country that few other NGOs have. And it also has a dialogue with the Taliban that I think offers it a relative competitive advantage in delivering those services. So I fully support that. I think that is in line with what we believe to be best practice at the moment.

What your question highlights—and it's also important for me to underscore—is that other NGOs who are partners with the UN and have joined in the UN's appeal for their humanitarian response plan also offer important critical services. A lot of these NGOs also reach places that the UN cannot, so their role is often complementary, rather than otherwise. I think your question also has another aspect: Australia should do all it can to stop the Afghan economy from a complete collapse, as it currently is in freefall. I think there are multiple things that could be done, including enabling the Afghan private banking sector to operate in ways that could avoid the sanction. There are technical fixes. Minds smarter than mine have provided several policy recommendations as to how to prop up the Afghan economy and put it back on its legs without normalising the Taliban or giving them access to potential funds.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence here today. We very much appreciate your time and your submission, which is extensive. I don't believe you've taken any questions on notice, but if you have, the secretariat will be in touch with you. They would be due back on 14 February. The committee will now suspend.

Proceedings suspended from 13:09 to 13:50