The Australian Christian Lobby has criticised the prime minister for saying visa applications from Ukrainian people are at “the top of the pile”, asking what message this sends to people “fleeing the horrors of the Taliban in Afghanistan”.
Amid a high volume of applications from Afghan nationals, the Morrison government is under pressure to expand the number of places in Australia’s humanitarian program, which is currently set at 13,750 per year.
The government is now weighing up how best to support those fleeing Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, signalling it is looking at a range of visa categories.
One option is adopting a similar scheme to that Australia introduced for those fleeing Kosovo, where temporary visas were given. Scott Morrison said on Tuesday it would be wrong to assume Ukrainians would not want to return home after the war.
The UN estimates 660,000 people have already fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries over the past week of the conflict.
The Australian Christian Lobby, which is influential with members of the Coalition and had a role in shaping the government’s stance on the religious discrimination bill, called for Australia to increase its overall humanitarian intake.
Wendy Francis, the national director of politics at the ACL, said she welcomed Morrison’s commitment to offer Ukrainians entry to Australia through the family, skilled and student visa programs.
But the ACL was concerned by the prime minister’s recent statement that he had instructed the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, to put visa applications from Ukrainians “to the top of the pile”.
“By ‘go to the top of the pile’, what does this say in regards to those fleeing the horrors of the Taliban in Afghanistan?” Francis told Guardian Australia.
She said that Australia’s immigration intake had been low for the past two years, leaving “a lot of room to take more people fleeing conflict and the world’s most desperate and pressing humanitarian crisis, which is in Afghanistan”.
“We don’t need a pile. We can continue to offer shelter to those fleeing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, as well as processing visa applications swiftly from Ukraine citizens.”
‘People’s lives are on the line’
As of January, the Department of Home Affairs had received more than 32,500 applications for the humanitarian program from Afghan nationals on behalf of more than 145,000 individuals.
In mid-February officials told a Senate committee 55,000 Afghan nationals had been certified as having made lawful applications to date, but only 1,000 of them had been granted permanent places. Processing was continuing.
Morrison has said the government would be “prepared to take more and more [Ukrainians], as we have with Afghanistan”. But Francis said Australia had “still not given places to Afghanistan refugees over and above our regular intake”.
The government announced in January it would provide at least 15,000 places for Afghan nationals through the humanitarian and family visa program – but this commitment was spread over four years, and not in addition to the existing overall intake.
The annual humanitarian intake was cut in 2020 from 18,750 places to 13,750. It is understood the government believes the 13,750 annual figure remains about the right level, but it is has not ruled out increasing the numbers.
Francis said the ACL wanted the government to “restore the places in our humanitarian aid program”, as the reduction should not “evolve into a budgetary saving”.
This month’s budget should deliver increased assistance to people from Afghanistan and Ukraine, she said.
“People’s lives are on the line. The need is urgent now.”
The Greens’ immigration spokesperson, Nick McKim, said an additional 20,000 places should be made available to Afghan refugees, above Australia’s existing intake.
“Given Australia’s culpability in occupying and destabilising Afghanistan, it is the very least that we can do,” McKim said.
Frydenberg says Afghans not forgotten
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, denied that putting applications from Ukraine to the top of the pile meant forgetting Afghanistan.
“Absolutely not,” Frydenberg told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
“We’re not looking to put them [Afghan nationals] down the pile. What we’re looking to do is work simultaneously bringing people from conflict zones like Afghanistan while responding to what is a very severe humanitarian challenge in Ukraine and neighbouring Poland.”
Frydenberg signalled the government was considering expanding support, saying it was “very concerned by the humanitarian impacts of this crisis” and would make “further announcements in due course”.
Morrison discussed the situation with Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, in a phone call on Wednesday evening.
Labor’s home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, said the unfolding security and humanitarian crisis was “devastating for the people of Ukraine and for the Ukrainian-Australian community”.
Keneally said the opposition would consider any proposals from the government, but called for it to act quickly.
“Unfortunately, the Morrison-Joyce government waited months before making clear what steps it would take to help Afghan asylum seekers, and today many are still uncertain about their applications for protection in Australia,” Keneally said.
Guardian Australia asked the Department of Home Affairs to provide an update on how many applications from Afghan nationals had been processed, how it would ensure focus was not taken off that cohort, and whether it had increased visa processing staff in light of the Afghanistan and Ukraine crises.
The department responded that it was “progressing outstanding visa applications from Ukrainian nationals as a priority, across all visa categories” and had “finalised hundreds of on-hand visa applications over recent days”.
But a spokesperson for the department said Afghan citizens were being prioritised for processing within Australia’s humanitarian program.
“The visa response to the situation in Ukraine continues to be focussed on the skilled, family, student and temporary entry streams,” a department spokesperson said.
“Consideration of humanitarian support options will be undertaken in conjunction with key partners to provide targeted support, including UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration.”
In 2015, the Abbott government’s offer to take 12,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria and Iraq was in addition to the pre-existing humanitarian intake, meaning that they were genuinely new places.