Peter Rosengren: Something good that a nation could do

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A baby is handed over to a US Army soldier over the perimeter wall of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 19 August 2021. Photo: CNS, Omar Haidari, social media via Reuters

We must try to keep our promises to our Afghan friends

Australia is, by any measure, a ridiculous proposition among the nations of the world – a vast continent possessed of massive agricultural and natural resources with a miniscule population living in five cities clinging precariously to its edges.

Looking at a map of Australia, it would be possible to draw lines all over it and plan projects that would open up the country in sustainable ways to the needs of its population – and others. Instead, a suburban people who live their lives almost completely remotely via social media and the internet, obsessed by suburban fears of global extinction and increasingly subject to conspiracy theories declares to the rest of the world that we don’t need – or want – anyone else. ‘Stay away,’ we declare, ‘It’s all ours. You can’t come here.’

The shameful aspects of our national character, of our culture, are evident in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attempts to sweep the issue of our duty to Afghan refugees under the carpet. That we have a responsibility is crystal clear.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP launches special appeal for Afghan refugees

We entered Afghanistan two decades ago as participants in a war involving that nation. Throughout the last 20 years enormous resources have been poured into recruiting Afghan people as allies and agents in the pursuit of that war. Knowing full well what would transpire should the Taliban ever come to power again, we have abandoned the very people we proclaimed to the world we had been rescuing and whom we had actively recruited. To reduce this situation to its essentials, we said to the Afghan people ‘trust us.’ Then we dumped them.

The figure announced by the Prime Minister of an intake of 3000 refugees from Afghanistan is fiction, an exercise in pure political management to persuade the public that this figure will salve our conscience, that this is all we have to do. Yet the flood of refugees out of Kabul and Afghanistan starkly demonstrates otherwise: that a humanitarian crisis of the kind we have seen all too often before and should have learned from is occurring in front of our eyes.

The figure announced by the Prime Minister of an intake of 3000 refugees from Afghanistan is fiction, an exercise in pure political management…

After 20 years of military intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan, to say that Australia was caught unawares is obvious political artfulness because it necessarily means that Australia’s best intelligence-gathering services had no idea what coalition forces were facing nor what they were capable of nor what they would do if they took power again. The polite word for that is … baloney.

This week, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has launched his special appeal for Afghan refugees who make it to Australia so that archdiocesan agencies and partners can help them rebuild their lives here. This is a project all of us should support with our widow’s mites as an urgent priority. It is one way we can transform our faith into the good works that are required of us by Jesus and His Gospel.

In the meantime, Australia’s bishops have urged the federal government to revise our Afghan intake figure to 20,000. Our bishops are also obviously committing the combined resources of the Church in this country to assist in that process. The figure nominated by the bishops is not only eminently reasonable but eminently feasible.

The bishops’ call to increase our Afghan refugee intake also demonstrates something of which the PM should take note: when Australian Catholic leaders such as Archbishop Fisher called on Australia to accept 12,000 Christian refugees fleeing ISIS from Syria and the Middle East in 2015 they may have been accused of asking for preferential treatment for their own.

However this latest call from the bishops and agencies such as the Jesuit Refugee Service to accept Afghan refugees from an overwhelmingly Islamic nation demonstrates that the Church acts and advocates not just for its own or in self-interest but for human beings regardless of what faith, if any, they identify with.

Accepting desperate people, those consigned to living on the margins because of poverty and violence – subject to fundamental principles of safeguarding the nation – is something that might become a national project. It could become a sign that we have not completely become a frivolous, vapid and shallow country obsessed by our own navel-gazing and selfishness.

It is something to which, as a culture and a people, we could commit rather than living the shame of abandonment of others in their greatest moment of need. The Prime Minister’s shutting of the gates reveals not only a lack of political courage but of imagination and vision of what might be possible as well. It is mediocrity.

He could change that completely by doing the right and decent thing rather than subordinating the plight of the desperate to an agenda of pure domestic politics and economics. He, of all our current political leaders, could lead the way in showing what Australians are really capable of.

Related:

Peter Rosengren: When politics becomes indifferent to people