Hazara refugees and Australian supporters gathered in large numbers in Canberra last Tuesday, calling on the government to end the many years of limbo and suffering experienced by Hazara refugees, who have now lived in Australia for up to 12 years on indefinite temporary visas after their long history of persecution in Afghanistan.
The community is asking the government to immediately grant permanent protection visas to Hazara refugees from Afghanistan living in Australia, and to facilitate reunification for family members still in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Not only will this resolve an intractable situation for the impacted refugees, but it will boost Australia's workforce at a time when the pandemic has caused critical labour shortages.
In 2014, Scott Morrison, then immigration minister, reintroduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs). This had the effect of forcing over 30,000 refugees and people seeking asylum who had arrived in Australia by boat into indefinite limbo, removing their eligibility for permanent protection visas, family reunification opportunities, pathways to citizenship and the ability to buy properties, as well as the ability to invest in Australia or access Commonwealth-supported places in higher education. This policy envisioned that, at some stage, refugees on temporary visas would return to their country of origin.
This option is clearly impossible for refugees from Afghanistan.
Hazaras have faced over 100 years of systematic discrimination and abuse by successive Afghan governments, based on their ethnic identity and minority religion as Shia Muslims, as well as their cultural traditions that support democratic values, educational pursuit and progressive thinking. Such values place them at conspicuous - dangerous - odds with the conservative religious views of much of Afghan society, in particular the Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). As a result, Hazaras are at risk of genocidal acts. These occurred in the late 1990s when the Taliban were last in power, and are already happening again.
Given the unlikelihood of a peaceful Afghanistan in the foreseeable future, it needs to be recognised that vulnerable Hazaras in Australia need permanent protection visas. A temporary visa status means the Department of Home Affairs is required to reassess TPV and SHEV applications every three or five years. Granting permanent protection visas will save the department roughly $300 million, as they will no longer be required to assess protection claims.
Those on TPVs and SHEVs currently do not have a pathway to family reunification, whereas permanency would provide an opportunity to bring threatened family members to Australia. This is not merely humane policy - it would also be economically beneficial to the Australian community. Research from the Refugee Council of Australia shows the permanent settlement of SHEV and TPV holders currently living in Australia is likely to generate around $6.75 billion for the Australian economy over a five-year period.
Hazara refugees have already contributed enormously to Australia, as entrepreneurs and as community members. Hazara community efforts raised almost $160,000 for bushfire relief in 2020, and the local community has a proud tradition of establishing successful businesses with no start-up funds. They are "highly entrepreneurial migrants" who have created a booming local economy in Enfield, Port Adelaide and built economic opportunities for the broader Victorian community in Dandenong, Shepparton and Naracoorte.
The global pandemic and consequent border closures have hugely affected Australia's migration program. Australia normally welcomes about 180,000 to 200,000 migrants annually to fill employment shortages, but this has stalled under the pandemic. Providing pathways for refugees to bring their families to Australia can fill existing gaps in our labour market.
At the same time, Australia has obligations under the Refugee Convention and international law to protect refugees and persons seeking asylum. The principle of non-refoulement is one of the most significant principles in the convention, and it means Australia cannot send refugees back to their country of origin, where they will be at risk of persecution. Despite this, the policy of temporary protection means that the Australian government is currently planning to return a Hazara refugee to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Under no circumstance will Hazara refugees be able to return to Afghanistan without lethal risk while the Taliban are in control. Granting permanent protection and family reunification access to these refugees who have been living in uncertainty for years will literally save lives. But it will also strengthen Australian society, with an injection of resilient people with strong community, entrepreneurial and democratic values, and the energy and optimism to build Australian opportunity.
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