Christmas in Afghanistan


Photo: ArmyAmber/

A few days before Christmas, the US announced it was easing aid sanctions against the Taliban, rag-tag rulers of Afghanistan. The hard-line Muslims insurgents over-ran the capital, Kabul, in August. Thousands of citizens were evacuated from Kabul Airport, with tens of thousands left behind. Since then, Afghans have been forced into starvation by a combination of famine and US aid sanctions.

The US has been trying to use aid sanctions as a lever to force the Taliban not to suppress women’s rights, including access to education. The sanctions have now been eased to allow an exemption for aid providers.

The US Treasury has broadened the definition of permitted humanitarian assistance to include education. This includes salary payments to teachers and to permit a broader use of US funds received by aid organisations working inside Afghanistan.

Before the decision to ease aid sanctions, aid groups said, the US was at risk of driving ordinary Afghans towards starvation.

David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, said the humanitarian exception to sanctions on the Taliban will help organisations like the IRC to scale up and deliver lifesaving services without fearing legal repercussions.

“This couldn’t come soon enough as nine million people in Afghanistan are marching toward famine and Afghan families are bracing for an extremely tough winter.”

Miliband said  foreign development aid to Afghanistan previously propped up 75% of all government spending.

“(The suspension of foreign aid) has wiped out the government’s ability to pay public servants and deliver desperately needed public services, including basic healthcare, to millions of Afghans.”

Christmas in Afghanistan might be a cute headline, but it was no fun for anyone, least of all the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Christians living in this landlocked emirate. Many reporters and diplomats were among those flown out of Kabul on domestic and military flights, so insightful news out of the country has been scarce. What we do know is that Afghans who helped the UN and coalition forces as guides and translators when they were based in Afghanistan, are now in hiding in fear of their lives and desperate to flee the country.

Surely this is when western governments should step up and fast-track intakes of refugees under Humanitarian visas.

At the outset, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would provide 3,000 humanitarian places for Afghans in 2021-2022. The places will come from the existing annual intake of 13,750, rather than a special allocation, but Afghans will be prioritised.

The move falls far short of commitments made by Canada and Britain. Both countries pledged to take in up to 20,000 Afghan refugees over the next few years. Canada later doubled its commitment to 40,000 places.

Mr Morrison said Australia has “no clear plans” to operate a program of a similar scale.

“Australia is not going into that territory. What we’re focused on is right here and right now,” he said.

By October, there were 32,000 applications for Humanitarian visas to Australia, representing about 150,000 Afghans. Not one has been approved, a Senate Select Committee was told. Parliament has been dissolved for the year, as we know, and MPs, Senators and their families have gone fishing.

Some work was done before the office closed for Christmas. There were meetings between Afghan leaders in Australia and the relevant Ministers to provide an update on a $27 million assistance package announced on October 14. Most of the funds will be directed to help support groups to sponsor Afghan refugees and bring them to Australia. The package includes $8 million in grant funding to support community-led organisations to deliver grass roots and personalised support to the new arrivals. It also includes $6.4 million to increase legal assistance and support subclass 449 visa holders (for those who are forced to flee and for whom there are grave concerns for their safety)  to transition onto permanent visa pathways.  In an update posted on December 9, the Department of Home Affairs said further information on how to access each element of the package will be provided “as soon as it becomes available”.

It’s hard to imagine how hard life is in Kabul, population 4.45 million, particularly for women (who now need a chaperone to go anywhere), the Hazara people and anyone who helped the UN and coalition forces as interpreters or guides. It’s all very well to say why don’t we just fly them out, but they have to get to the airport first, and as can be seen by televised scenes of chaos on the ground, that is no easy task. Australia managed to evacuate 3,500 Australian and Afghan people with Australian visas, 2,500 of them women and children.

The ABC interviewed Afghans who now live in Australia, but at the cost of being separated from their families. Those Afghans are now worried that those left behind after the Taliban invasion will be forgotten. The ABC interviewed ‘Abdul’, who fled Afghanistan in 2011 after the Taliban targeted him for being a journalist.

Two years and three countries later, he boarded a boat from Indonesia and arrived on Christmas Island after a five-day voyage.

He has not seen his wife and five children in a decade — they are still in Afghanistan.

Australia is a beautiful country. Nice people, lots of opportunities but when you don’t have your family with you … that’s jail for you,” he said.

Abdul is on a temporary protection visa (TPV) which grants temporary residency in Australia. But TPV holders are unable to sponsor family members applying for Australian visas.

Refugee support groups have been lobbying the government for years to grant people like Abdul permanent visas so they can hopefully reunite with their families. But the government’s hard line against resettling people who arrived by boat has left 30,000 people like Abdul stranded in Australia, some for more than 10 years, without permanent residency.

The argument about permanent vs temporary visas dates from Tony Abbott’s stop the boats campaign in 2013, which fed off John Howard’s defining statement in 2001 that no-one who arrived by boat would be permanently settled here. Temporary protection visas give rights to work and some welfare services but prevent permanent residency, family reunions and overseas travel. The Lowy Institute’s long-running series of polls on refugee issues shows that the TPV question sharply divides Australians (48% for, 49% against and 3% on the fence).

After all that is said, the government’s response (3,000 places from an existing quota), is neither admirable nor sustainable. Australia already has a strong connection to Afghanistan with 46,799 Afghans living here according to the 2016 Census. That was a 69% increase on the 2011 Census, so we could assume this figure has jumped to around 60,000 in 2021.

As chair of the Southern Downs Refugee and Migrant Network (SDRAMN), I’d encourage you write to your local MP, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Tell them that compassionate Australians want to see the Humanitarian intake from Afghanistan raised from 3,000 to 20,000.

Tell them to decide if the government will pay to fly people out of Kabul to Australia (at the moment that question is undetermined).

Above all, encourage the government to prioritise reuniting families divided by civil war and terror.

While you are writing to politicians, remind them about the 30,000 asylum seekers/refugees who have still not been granted permanent residency. Why ‘stick to a principle’ that is causing so much suffering and has no deterrent effect?

That’s a lot to get in one letter, but if you visit Rural Australians for Refugees, you will find some helpful templates.

Happy New Year one and all.

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Vicky Thursfield
Vicky Thursfield
January 11, 2022 10:06 am

Thank you for your illuminating and terrifying article. I am one of a group of ordinary Australians who are sponsoring Afghans’ humanitarian visa applications and the silence regarding these is deafening! I am writing letters to all those that you recommend, and anyone else who might listen, to get this visa allocation increased. What else can we do? My Afghani ‘grandson’, who I chat over Signal to daily, says it is comforting to know we care but it breaks my heart when he asks if there is any good news from our government. I will share your story and keep… Read more »