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The benefits of war: Afghan helpers and Abbott’s 'discrete settlement' program

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 5 June 2014


The Abbott Government has made a point to shock more than awe in its short time in office. (It is hard to be awed by the Prime Minister, whose behaviour has been expected.) It has taken the program of the previous Labor government further in chastising and banishing asylum seekers. It has created seemingly insuperable legal barriers in arriving, legitimately, to Australia. It has grovelled and fawned before US power interests while dismissing concerns of unwarranted mass surveillance. It has taken the hammer to affordable education, proposed increases in the costs of medical services and funnelled more money into defence.

Then came the announcement, made in somewhat hushed tones, that 500 Afghans, many of them involved in interpreting duties for the Australian Defence Force, have been resettled in Australia. For Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, "This policy reflects Australia's fulfilment of its moral obligation to those who provided invaluable support to Australia's efforts in Afghanistan."

The move is tantamount to saving a group of individuals from slaughter in an uncomfortable historical situation. (One interpreter awaiting his departure to Australia was killed in a Taliban attack last year.) It is axiomatic, occupations breed collaborators and necessary opportunism. Others do not necessarily take kindly to the effort. A collaborator is fodder for those who feel that the book of grievance needs to be balanced in the wake of the occupier's departure. Local scores will always be settled.

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While many Afghans who have fled their ruined state are finding themselves in Australia's broader Pacific network of camps, those who assisted the very forces of the Coalition occupation have been given flowers of welcome, a smorgasbord of gifts from housing to medical services. Fortress Australia, on this occasion, will make a grand dispensation – you helped us fight a war that we lost, or at never rate never won, and now, we will repay you.

It is a fact that has escaped commentary in Australian media and political sources. These people, surely, would never have needed resettlement had the mission, if you want to call it that, been competently, and successfully, executed. There would be schools, institutions, and a peaceful regime of order. Instead, in what can only be an admission of veiled defeat similar to Iraq and Vietnam, those helping foreign forces must leave in fear. The Taliban forces are closing in.

The Abbott government's approach to the relocation program is similar to the amenable police agency that relocates individuals under a witness protection program. There might be a cloud over your reputation, and your life – after all, we helped put it there. "Many of these employees," explains Defence Minister David Johnston, "were placed at significant risk of harm by insurgents in Afghanistan, due to the highly visible and dangerous nature of their employment." While it happily defames Afghans who arrive by boat, slandering their credentials and condemning them for non-existent offences on the high seas, the Abbott government will give those complicit in Australia's war effort a helping hand.

This is not to draw a fine line under matters of allegiance – all is fair, and unfair, in brutal love and vicious war. Conflicts produce pressing interests in survival. Constellations of loyalties form, less to do with genuine fidelity than the need to get by. (How quickly did the Australian authorities forget those Afghan recruits they trained who fired and killed their own personnel.) Children need to be fed; the family needs protection.

It is, for all of this, fitting to point out the instinctive hypocrisy in dealing with a war torn country whose refugees are treated under different regimes. Those loyal to the occupation program have stolen a march. Those fleeing that very same conflict have received the opprobrium of their receiving country. That governments who were childishly keen participants in the invasion, and continued occupation, of Afghanistan, draw this distinction, suggests a greater picture on where culpability lies.

The Abbott government has taken the steps of its predecessors, following an Australian history that distinguishes between good and bad immigrants, even if they come from the same loose ethnicity. In the late 1930s, there was a fear that only "bad" Jews were heading for Australia's shores, the sort of unassimilable central and eastern Europeans who might, according to authorities, rile an otherwise well-tempered populace. No Sir John Monash among them. He, after all, was one of us.

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An electorate hardened and fed on the rhetoric of turning back boats might well be puzzled with such gestures of "humanitarianism". As if making a point, Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews was keen to point out that the arrivals were good future citizens who had fought the good fight. "Many have already commenced employment of vocational training opportunities and their children are enrolled in school."

A curious unfolding of events has taken place. Afghans subjected to the withering, and fictitious label, of "queue jumper" will no doubt be puzzled by the momentous leap made by those warm with Australian Defence personnel. Some get the steaming, brutal conditions of Manus Island, with privatised security forces and psychologically wearing facilities. Others get accommodation, health services and household assistance. War always pays, for some.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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