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Help needed now on Afghan refugee crisis

The lightning speed of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has shaken the world, leaving a humanitarian crisis and a deeply traumatised Afghan refugee diaspora community.

The upheaval and unfinished US-led evacuation has left huge numbers of at-risk people trapped. Initial murmurings of a more moderate Sharia law seem shattered.

In Queensland, the state-wide specialist refugee community legal centre, RAILS (Refugee and Immigration Legal Service), has been inundated by over 700 calls in the last three weeks from a deeply traumatised Afghan community desperately wanting help to lodge humanitarian applications for their relatives trying to flee Afghanistan.

Those trapped include human rights and women’s activists, journalists, locals engaged by Australian forces, single women at risk of forced marriage and members of persecuted minorities.

Many are in Kabul, having fled the advancing Taliban, not knowing the capital would fall so rapidly. Others are elsewhere in Afghanistan or have joined the 2.5 million other Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries.

The task to help Queensland’s Afghan community is massive and daunting. RAILS is reaching out to the legal profession for help and QLS is right beside them in support.

As a start, RAILS and the QLS are partnering to hold a free online seminar ‘Humanitarian visas law and practice – Afghan cases’ on Tuesday 21 September 2021 from 5.30pm-7pm. You can register here.

In the seminar Dr Angus Francis, an expert refugee lawyer, will outline the law and practice around offshore refugee and humanitarian visas under the Migration Act and regulations.

He will explore issues around preparing and lodging Class XB Humanitarian Visas for people at serious risk of harm proposed by close family citizens or permanent residents in Australia. The seminar will also cover family migration opportunities and how to assist Australian citizens and visa holders in Afghanistan.

QLS President Elizabeth Shearer said that, as Queensland’s second oldest community legal centre, RAILS had received immense pro bono support over the years from several large firms, who were again stepping up to help, but the scale of the task is mammoth.

RAILS is offering training and support for lawyers willing to use their forensic legal skills to take on or assist with an Afghan humanitarian visa application to the Department of Home Affairs.

The core tasks are to gather evidence of the applicant’s identity and history, and prepare a cogent story of the fears of staying or returning to Afghanistan, and to ensure that all the details on the applicant’s and proposer’s forms are fully consistent, so as to give the best chance.

Many supporters in the general public have begun helping Afghan families fill in the forms but lawyer’s training here is invaluable. Wrong, insufficient or inconsistent detail can doom the application but also may expose the proposer in Australia to the risk of having their permanent resident status or citizenship questioned by the Department of Home Affairs, given its policy in recent years of extreme vetting of migration applications from people of refugee background.

The key legal requirements are found in Class XB Refugee and Humanitarian Visas in Schedule 1 Migration Regulations, and corresponding subclasses 200 to 204 which are a range of inside and outside home-country visas.

There is no merits review and few judicial cases. There is wide discretion in decision-making based mainly on Australian ‘government priorities’ and the limit of places available in the yearly humanitarian intake.

The Government has announced an initial 3000 places for Afghan refugees, but indicated that will be increased. Many are calling for that to be 20,000 or more.

Any complex legal cases would be taken on by RAILS or other specialist migration lawyers. A Community of Practice for humanitarian cases will be set up so that new practitioners to the area will have access to peer support.

This is a chance for practitioners to offer their skills and have a real impact in promoting human rights while supporting a deeply traumatised community. With lawyers now able to practice immigration assistance without having to register as migration agents, this is an opportunity for lawyers to gain insight into the deeply important area of humanitarian law and to make a difference.

Robert Lachowicz is an Education Officer/Lawyer with the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service (RAILS).

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