The Morrison government has finally bowed to pressure to offer Afghan nationals fleeing the Taliban extra humanitarian places on top of the existing global intake.
The government’s previous offers to help Afghan nationals have been within the overall humanitarian program, which is capped at 13,750 a year.
That stance attracted criticism from refugee advocates and religious groups which said Australia had an obligation to do more given its 20-year military engagement in Afghanistan prior to the withdrawal last year.
In Tuesday evening’s budget, the government announced it would allocate an additional 16,500 humanitarian places for Afghan nationals over the next four years – 4,125 each year.
Officials confirmed these were on top of the 13,750 “ceiling” for the annual humanitarian program. The supplementary places are from the 2022-23 financial year.
The immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said the move was “in recognition of our sustained commitment following Australia’s two decades of operations in Afghanistan”.
“In conjunction with previous announcements, this brings the total number of places available to Afghans across Australia’s Humanitarian and Migration Programs to 31,500 over the next four program years,” he said.
That total includes 10,000 places that had already been pledged within the existing humanitarian program over four years and the 5,000 previously announced places in the permanent stream, such as for family members.
In essence the new announcement means Afghan nationals will gain places both within the global intake and in addition to it.
Advocates who had been calling on the government to do more had cited the example set by Tony Abbott in 2015 when the then prime minister announced 12,000 places for Syrian and Iraqi refugees would be in addition to the existing global intake.
Refugee groups had been calling for a 20,000-strong special intake for Afghan nationals. Anglican bishops and archbishops renewed that call in a letter to the prime minister, Scott Morrison, this month. The Australian Christian Lobby – which is in regular contact with the government – had also been pressing the Coalition to do more.
The budget documents say the government is allocating $666m over four years for the additional 16,500 humanitarian places for Afghan nationals.
The Afghanistan-Australian Advocacy Network welcomed the decision.
Shabnam Safa, a refugee advocate, said: “Tonight’s announcement is welcome and has been long-awaited in our community amidst the excruciating pain and distress of the last seven months.”
The executive director of Micah Australia, Tim Costello, said the move would help “some of the most vulnerable Afghan people displaced by the crisis inflicted upon them by the Taliban and those still devastated by food and supply shortages”.
Costello, who led the Christians United for Afghanistan campaign, said everyone who had called on the Australian government to act “should feel proud knowing an additional 16,500 Afghans will be able to seek refuge in Australia as a result”. He said the support should not end there.
“From Afghanistan and Myanmar to Ukraine, there is greater conflict and instability. The Australian government must increase its aid program and long-term investment in development cooperation and humanitarian assistance,” Costello said.
In another sign of the continuing fallout from the war in Afghanistan, the government has earmarked another $6.7m in 2022-23 to support the work of the Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) as it investigates alleged war crimes by Australian special forces.
This funding includes $3.9m for the attorney general’s department to advise OSI on matters of international law, obtain legal assistance from foreign jurisdictions and to “protect sensitive national security information in potential criminal proceedings”.
There is also $2.8m to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to provide legal advice to OSI, including training for investigators and brief preparation. The budget papers say the OSI funding will be offset by redirecting funding from the Department of Defence.
The government’s assistance to people fleeing Russia’s war on Ukraine is being offered on a temporary basis. It flagged plans to offer a three-year Temporary Humanitarian Concern Visa (subclass 786) to Ukrainians across 2021-22 and 2022-23.
Home affairs has also earmarked $9m in 2022-23 to extend existing Youth Transition Support services for 12 months “to continue the provision of services to young humanitarian entrants and vulnerable migrants”.
The budget papers said this aimed to “increase engagement in education and community sport and assist in transition to employment”.
As Australia seeks to move to a post-pandemic footing, the government has set a ceiling of 160,000 places for the permanent migration program in 2022-23.
“The Morrison government’s migration program will focus on skilled migration, with a return to a pre-pandemic composition of roughly two-thirds/one-third across the Skill and Family streams,” Hawke said.
He also announced that partner-visa processing would move to a “demand-driven model”, meaning there would be no hard cap on such places.