Speech at the peaceful protests against the persecution of Hazaras and forced returns to Afhganistan

Melbourne, Saturday 11 April 2015

Today I would like to talk about promises. Over 60 years ago, Australia made a promise, both to its citizens and to people around the world, that it would protect those fleeing persecution. This promise was made voluntarily, as an act of humanity and solidarity, following the horrors of World War Two.

That promise was made by signing the Refugee Convention, a binding international commitment. This promise is not to be taken lightly, indeed the consequences of Australia breaking its promise is almost certain death for many people. As part of that promise, Australia has committed to not return people to places where they risk persecution, torture or death.

However, of late, Australia seems to show little regard for its own promises, and continues to force people back to countries where they are at grave danger.

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The situation in Afghanistan is not safe, especially for Hazaras, and recent events highlight the danger of people returning there. The Taliban and other affiliate groups have vowed to wipe out Hazaras from Afghanistan.

Security conditions in Afghanistan have not only failed to improve, they are getting worse. The political vacuum in Afghanistan has led to heightened violence and the situation is now intrinsically dangerous for certain groups of people. No one with any knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan could possibly come to the conclusion that conditions are conducive to safe return. Pakistan is also unsafe for thousands of Hazaras, many who fear targeted killings, bomb attacks and death threats on an almost daily occurrence. Both the Afghan and Pakistani Governments have failed to protect Hazaras from deadly terrorist attacks.

In the last year, Australia has forcibly returned a number of Hazaras to Afghanistan, despite clear evidence of the danger. After one forced return last year, a Hazara man faced abduction and torture at the hands of the Taliban. Another Australian citizen was abducted and killed by the Taliban after returning to visit his family. These returns are a clear violation of international law and sign that Australia has no regard for its own promises.

Our Government repeatedly claims that its motivation in stopping asylum seekers travelling by boat to Australia is to save lives. It would be hypocritical of the Government to continue forced returns of Haaras knowing that their return could well mean a death sentence.

It is also hypocritical that we will send Australian soldiers to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, yet we won’t protect those fleeing the Taliban when they arrive in Australia.

Australia is attempting to avoid its responsibilities to refugees by turning boats around, putting people, including women, children and babies, into detention here and in offshore detention centres, and by implementing new laws designed to bypass the Refugee Convention.

I am tired of hearing our politicians say that these harsh and inhumane policy are justified as they are stopping people taking dangerous journeys by sea. It is an argument that the ends justify the means, even if the means are cruel, inhumane and torturous. If the government is really concerned about saving lives, it will seek to ensure the protection of refugees worldwide, rather than simply try push asylum seekers to make another dangerous journey elsewhere.

Media reports this week revealed that the Government is spending $4 million to create TV shows designed to discourage people coming to Australia. This action shows that the Australian Government has no idea about refugees around the world if it thinks a TV show is going to convince people not to flee persecution. A TV show isn’t going to stop people who are running from the Taliban.

In addition, Australian Government is spending $4 billion of tax payer money on detaining and deterring asylum seekers. In contrast, in 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spent $3.5 billion globally. Our money and efforts should go towards addressing protection needs around the world including here in Australia for all citizens, not trying to stop people fleeing violence and war.

Australia should be doing more to protect those who are fleeing violence, war and persecution. Not only is this about providing protection for people who face persecution and insecurity in the world: it is about upholding our promises and restoring our own humanity. We know that Australia can do better, and we hope that we will do better.

Today I call upon the Australian Government to keep its promise it made 60 years ago, and ensure that it provides protection to those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan.

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