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Ukraine response shows Australia's refugee hypocrisy

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The Morrison Government has shown compassion to the refugees of Ukraine after treating non-white refugees with cruelty (Image by Dan Jensen)

Scott Morrison's compassion towards the refugees of Ukraine is revealing the hypocrisy of his Government and ethnic double standards, writes Dr Nilanthy Vigneswaran.

AS THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY awoke to reports of Russian military attacks on major Ukrainian cities, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, committed to expediting Australia’s processing of Ukrainian refugees.

As a statement of solidarity outside St Andrew’s Ukrainian church, he also promised to allocate additional places to Australia’s current humanitarian refugee intake, to accommodate those fleeing the unfolding war.

In the face of at least 1.3 million Ukrainian civilians who have been displaced since the Russian invasion began, this is an appropriate act of international aid, commensurate to the crisis. However, the Australian Government is yet to offer an additional place in its humanitarian program to Afghan refugees fleeing persecution.

The UN estimates that almost 700,000 Afghan nationals have been forcibly displaced over the past 12 months, with a sharp increase since the Taliban takeover. The Australian Human Rights Commission and the Afghan community have appealed for this intake to be increased to at least 20,000, especially considering Australia’s 20-year military involvement in the country.

Australia’s net migration numbers have dipped to their lowest in a decade, with a disproportionate increase in temporary visa holders. Our humanitarian intake remains capped at 13,750 places, a permanent cut of more than 5,000 places during the COVID-19 pandemic. Morrison and the Coalition Government have asserted that our reduced immigration numbers now allow for the capacity to accept more Ukrainian refugees.

However, 1,400 refugees and asylum seekers remain in held immigration detention and more than 200 in offshore facilities, most of whom have been recognised as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Almost 70 individuals who were initially transferred under now-defunct Medevac legislation from Nauru and Papua New Guinea remain in alternate places of detention (APODs). Some of them have been detained for up to nine years and continue to await medical treatment.

This perceived double standard in the Western response to the Ukrainian conflict has not gone unnoticed. International media outlets and journalists have come under fire for contentious comparisons drawn between Ukraine and other countries that have experienced conflict and forced displacement including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The admiration expressed (rightly) for the resistance of the Ukrainian people during the Russian invasion has not been echoed consistently by the international community for other nations who fight an occupying force. PM Scott Morrison, who condemned Russia as a pariah state following a swift imposition of sanctions, also dismissed reports from Amnesty International that Israel was violating international law.

Australia’s human rights record has come under greater scrutiny by the Human Rights Watch this year, with our high rates of Indigenous incarceration and lack of consistent climate policy emphasised. The recent detention of Novak Djokovic in the Park Hotel has again thrown an international spotlight on our mandatory immigration detention regime. Refugees and asylum seekers are in held immigration detention for a median of 689 days, 12 times longer on average than in the United States.

There have been many cases of assault and abuse documented in immigration detention, some involving children. Fourteen deaths have occurred in offshore detention, with a recent coronial inquest citing the inadequate emergency care delivered. The COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed disparities in the infection control measures and vaccination rates in immigration detention — two outbreaks have been reported in recent months at both Villawood Detention Centre and the Park Hotel, Melbourne.

The New Zealand refugee deal, first offered by PM Jacinda Ardern in 2013, would resettle 150 refugees annually who had been held in offshore detention. As the Department of Home Affairs tried to finalise this, one wonders (after almost a decade of rebuffing this offer), if this is a red herring. Though a better option than the current conditions of detentions for refugees and asylum seekers, it still limits the rights of these individuals to ever settle in Australia should it come into play.

The economic costs of offshore detention have increased, with more than $1.7 billion spent since 2017. No data supports the Federal Government’s claims that offshore processing reduced asylum seekers arriving by boat. The highest number of boat arrivals was, in fact, recorded in the months following the introduction of offshore processing in 2012. Dismantling Australia’s current system of offshore (and indefinite) immigration detention is critical to meeting our international obligations as signatories to the Refugee Convention.

In the lead up to the Federal Election, Australia needs to seriously consider increasing its humanitarian intake, given multiple refugee crises evolving globally. As reports confirm that the Federal Government has already approved more than 1,000 visas for Ukrainians displaced in the current conflict, our capacity to also support other vulnerable groups in our humanitarian intake is limited by cuts to the number of places on offer.

Those currently on temporary protection visas from countries such as Afghanistan need to be made eligible for permanent protection. Providing appropriate access to medical services, particularly to those Medevac refugees who were initially transferred to Australia for further medical investigations and treatment, is long overdue.

Opening our doors to those fleeing the current Ukrainian conflict is necessary — but we must apply that compassion to all seeking safety in Australia. 

Dr Nilanthy Vigneswaran is an Infectious Diseases doctor and refugee health advocate with the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN).

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