Rights activists in Australia are criticizing the government's plan to repatriate Afghan refugees who fail to qualify for asylum. They say the government is downplaying the security risks in Afghanistan and thus are jeopardizing the safety of the asylum seekers being sent home.
Australian officials say Afghanistan has taken what they call "major steps towards democracy and stability." There are about 1,500 Australian troops in Afghanistan, and while officials in Canberra acknowledge that poverty and security issues remain a critical challenge, they insist that important progress has been made.
Some critics say the Canberra government is downplaying the security risks in Afghanistan. And they say that assessment has an impact on Australia's immigration policies regarding Afghan refugees.
The issue was a topic of discussion at a conference on Australia's Afghanistan policy hosted by the University of Technology in Sydney. Organizers there say that as a consequence of the government's assessment, Australia has reduced the number of protection visas it grants Afghan refugees. They say that in 2007, Australia granted visas to 95 percent of Afghans seeking asylum. Now, they say, fewer than half of such visa applications are approved.
Australia signed a deal with Kabul in January that allows Canberra to deport refugees who fail to gain asylum. So far, no one has been forcibly repatriated, but officials in Canberra will not say if or when deportations will begin. Professor James Goodman from the University of Technology questions the logic of such a policy.
“There are about 2,500 of these Afghan refugees, all of them still in detention," he said. "This agreement with the Afghan government would allow the Australian government to force them to return to Afghanistan and our concern was that clearly the security situation in Afghanistan is not improving. In fact, it is deteriorating over the last few years, deteriorating quite significantly year by year.”
The meeting of academics, students and human rights activists was held to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the former Taliban government. The conference called on the Australian government to reconsider its policy on Afghan asylum to take into account what organizers characterized as a worsening security situation.
Among the speakers was Abdul Karim Hekmat, who arrived from Afghanistan ten years ago. He says members of his minority Hazara ethnic group are facing increased persecution at the hands of the Taliban and discrimination by the government. Most of the asylum seekers who apply to stay in Australia are from the Hazara group.
Abdul says any asylum seekers sent home would be at risk. “For those people who will be forced to return to Afghanistan, they will be deported in a danger zone and the Afghan government is not able to protect them, the returnees and the Hazaras will be targeted once they are returned to Afghanistan,” he said.
Immigration has become one of the most contentious issues in Australian politics largely because of a steady flow of unauthorized arrivals coming by boat in recent years. The Labor government’s proposal to send asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing was recently declared unlawful by the High Court.
Australia grants visas to about 13,000 refugees annually under various international treaties.