Qualified Afghan refugees are being denied a shot at harnessing their skills. Australia needs to recognise their worth | Shadi Khan Saif

Host nations need to champion the abilities of capable men and women by offering them opportunities in their areas of expertise

Mopping floors and washing dishes at a small Melbourne restaurant, he was one of the leading press photographers in Afghanistan before fleeing the Taliban’s resurgence last year. She was a senior teacher in a bustling public school in the north of the war-ravaged country before ending up on Australia’s jobseekers list six months ago. A human rights activist with a bachelor’s degree working as a labourer building fences, another selling groceries in a market to sustain his extended family facing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

There are hundreds of similar stories of despair with educated and skilled professionals not having their abilities respected or utilised in their new home country.

Moving out of inner city Melbourne a few weeks ago, I came across so many devastated Afghans who were grappling with the trauma of being uprooted and now faced with the upheaval of a new beginning in a foreign country.

In comparison to the inner city, mornings in these suburbs are starkly different. Where in the city one would commonly see students and well-dressed professionals starting their day, the train stations here are packed with young men in paint and concrete stained workwear and exhausted healthcare workers. The evenings are different as well with little signs of life in local restaurants, bars or cafes. Official figures suggest more people from suburbs such as Dandenong are employed in labour-intensive jobs than the state-level average.

Nevertheless, the diversity on the outskirts of Melbourne is amazing. I see so many more people from different parts of the world such as Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Albania, Turkey, Greece, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, or Bangladesh on any given day than I did in three months of living in the inner city.

Many are choosing to stay anonymous out of fear of repercussions from the hardline Taliban because of family members still stuck in Afghanistan. There is a general feeling of resentment towards Australia and the west more generally for the haphazard withdrawal and abandonment. “The westerners used us [Afghans] once against the Soviets [during the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s] and then in the name of democracy [post-US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001] and ultimately abandoned us twice,” a senior former Afghan official now based in Victoria told me.

With the US and Nato’s rush to exit in August 2021, Afghanistan lost its brightest minds in what would remain in history as an example of a dreadful brain drain of an entire nation.

Beyond the west’s collective failure of Afghanistan’s democratisation, Australia, and for that matter all host countries in the west, could partly make up for their failures by providing equal, if not special, opportunities for the qualified and educated men and women in their areas of interests and expertise with tailored provisions of training, further education and jobs.

In Australia and many other countries the existing legislations and rules have limits imposed on what individuals from a refugee background or the various visa status holders can or cannot study, work etc. Similarly, the existing mechanism for job seekers and unemployment benefits often does not serve the purpose of the Canberra government as well as the beneficiary in the long-run.

This is not to say that nothing good is happening in this regard whatsoever. Those fleeing the war in Afghanistan are happy with their mere survival and rarely complain about the disparity. There are a few who are getting offered work opportunities to help with expanding the railway networks – just what their forefathers from Afghanistan were doing in Australia more than a century ago.

It is an open question for Australia and the newly arrived generation of Afghans whether there is a need for, say, more teachers, doctors and environmentalists or mainly labour-intensive workers to extract more resources and expand railway networks.

Those fleeing Afghanistan face life-threatening circumstances and many might never be able to go back to their country but that does not mean they should be exploited in their host countries or demonised back home as abandoning their country of birth. Those with the power to make decisions – the perpetrators of both war and peace in Afghanistan – have the luxury to change course and mend ties with each other and even with their foes, while the common people go down in history as just collateral damage or a homeless diaspora.

• Shadi Khan Saif is an Afghan journalist based in Melbourne


Shadi Khan Saif

The GuardianTramp

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