Hard life: Two Afghan refugees, Ishaq Ali (left) and Qurban Ali, repair water pipes leading to their rented house in Batulayang village, Cisarua district, Bogor, last week. Bogor authorities were to launch raid on illegals living on the Puncak mountainous resort on Monday. (JP/Wendra Ajistyatama)
Bogor authorities are set to crack down on asylum seekers and refugees in the mountainous resort region of Puncak, although many local people have no objection to their presence and activities, which have reportedly caused no trouble for the community.
Residents of Batu Kasur village in Batulayang said the asylum seekers and refugees, who have left their home countries in the Middle East, should not be removed, but that the relevant authorities should instead help them to solve their problems.
The villagers’ testimonies contradict a recent statement from a Bogor official, which said that the asylum seekers and refugees had caused trouble for local people.
“We want the regency of Bogor to be free of [asylum seekers] due to the trouble they have caused to local communities,” Bogor public security agency head Rizal Hidayat said.
He said last week that residents had complain about unruly behavior from the asylum seekers, such as bringing home sex workers and being rowdy. He added that their presence had become a nuisance.
A large number of asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, are using the Puncak area of Bogor regency as a place of transit while they apply for official refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Jakarta.
Most of them hope to reach a third country such as Australia, due to the peaceful conditions and the perceived job prospects there.
In contrast to Rizal’s statement, 60-year-old vendor Popon said that she did not mind the asylum seekers living in her neighborhood because they all had exhibited good behavior and helped to boost the local economy.
“I don’t know about the asylum seekers in other villages, but over here, they do not cause any trouble,” Popon told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.
According to Waspud “Budi”, a Kuningan-born resident who is renting houses to asylum seekers and refugees in Batu Kasur, those living in his neighborhood are abiding by the rules set by the community.
“In order to live in this neighborhood, we give them a set of rules to abide by, including not disturbing the peace of residents, respecting a 10 p.m. noise curfew and not bringing sex workers into the homes. So far, they have not broken the rules,” Budi said on Sunday.
Budi added that the presence of the asylum seekers and refugees had benefitted the neighborhood economically.
“They spend money at our warung [food stalls] and markets, helping to boost the local economy. They are also helpful people, despite not speaking our language,” he added.
The majority of the asylum seekers cannot speak English or Indonesian. Due to the language barrier, many of them do not interact with local residents.
“We rarely interact with the locals directly, but at the mosques we exchange friendly looks,” said Qurban Ali, an Afghan-born refugee from Quetta, Pakistan, who has been living in Batu Kasur for eight months. He has only been learning English for three months and speaks no Indonesian.
Similarly, Ishaq Ali, a 33-year-old former school librarian from Jaghori, Afghanistan, who is fluent in English, said that despite the language barrier, he found the residents helpful.
“The residents here are helpful. Even though I speak very little Indonesian, it seems to be enough for them to understand me,” he said.
Qurban and Ishaq, who are not related, are both Afghan-born asylum seekers. They have applied for official refugee status from the UNHCR office, and each share a house with four or five other Afghanis in Batu Kasur village.
Qurban, a father of five who was previously a dried fruit merchant in Quetta, received his refugee card from the UNHCR eight months ago. After being granted legal refugee status, the UN said that he would be relocated to Australia. However, Qurban does not know when that will happen.
Ishaq has not yet received his card, due to the fact that he has only been in Indonesia for around a month.
When asked about the prospect of being evicted by the Bogor government, both men were unsure where they would go if they were asked to leave their current homes.
“If the [Bogor] government asks us to leave this area, I don’t know where I could go,” Qurban remarked.
According to the Bogor Immigration Office, 254 refugees are registered in Bogor regency. Over recent years, the administration has sent 257 asylum seekers to detention centers across Indonesia.
On April 14, the Bogor Immigration Office — along with the Bogor public security agency, the police and the Law and Human Rights Ministry — intends to conduct a campaign to inform local residents, as well as the asylum seekers and refugees, of the plan to eject them from Bogor regency.
The campaign will involve informing residents that lease their houses to the asylum seekers and refugees of the plan.
Australia’s hard-line policy on asylum seekers including bundling them into lifeboats and sending them back to Indonesia. (AFP Photo/Timur Matahari)
When Malcolm Fraser, a former Australian prime minister, criticized the country’s hard-line policies for turning genuine asylum seekers into a political punching bag, he may well have had the plight of groups like the Hazara of Afghanistan and Pakistan in mind.
Groups like this, say critics of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s pledge to “turn back the boats,” have been left dehumanized, with little attention paid to why they are desperate enough to risk their lives to reach Australian shores.
Hazaras, like asylum seeker Hamzad, not his real name, face extermination in Pakistan, their distinguishable Asiatic features allowing terrorists to pick them out for murderous attacks.
Over the last 200 years, the Hazara have fled persecution in Afghanistan to find refuge in the border town of Quetta in Pakistan, where many have established families and businesses. Since 2001 the Hazara community there has been threatened as violence against them has amplified.
Sunni terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) specifically attack Hazaras as their ethnicity points to their “heretic” Shiite religious beliefs. They are a people LeJ wants eradicated from Pakistan.
Bomb attacks against them are planned to cause maximum destruction. In one of the bloodiest attacks in Quetta on Jan. 10 last year, a suicide bomber walked into a packed billiard hall and blew himself up.
An ambulance arrived shortly after and was ushered to the site — only to be detonated as a secondary bomb.
Children have been no exception in the attacks. A February 2013 bombing ripped through a vegetable market where mothers and children were shopping for groceries. On Sept. 20, 2011, armed men boarded a bus traveling from Quetta to Iran. Twenty-six Hazara men were identified, taken off the bus, lined up and murdered.
Just three weeks earlier, 26 people, including women and children, were killed in a bus attack while on a pilgrimage. An ambulance carrying the injured was later attacked, killing three more people. LeJ claimed responsibility.
Hamzad says that for the Hazara, the future is dire. He does not believe Hazaras can find a home in Afghanistan or Pakistan if the situation persists. He believes the Hazara are becoming a landless people, without security, without hope.
Human rights researcher and Hazara spokesman Ahmad Shuja says the rise in the number of Hazara asylum seekers trying to make it to Australia is a direct result of the violence, and that changes in Australia’s immigration policy ignore the root causes of why people are seeking asylum.
“This is evident when we see that despite the toughening of asylum laws, the number of refugees has continued to increase. This is because the violence they are fleeing has intensified,” he says. “The recent amendments to Australia’s refugee law and the associated media campaign to dissuade Hazaras from coming to Australia seem to disregard the targeted violence and terrorism these refugees are fleeing. These laws are a destination-side solution to a problem that is really about the point of origin.”
Some have labeled the violence as yet another battle between Sunni and Shiite, but Shuja says this is a misconception.
“The violence in Quetta is often branded as Shiite-Sunni violence. It is not. The Shiites are not retaliating, and the broader Sunni community is not involved in the attacks against the Shiites,” he says. “The attacks are carried out by a highly sophisticated Sunni terrorist group that does effective intelligence gathering about targets and then stages complex, highly effective attacks. Their stated target is the Shiite across Pakistan, with specific emphasis on targeting the Hazara community in Quetta with the ultimate aim of ‘ridding Pakistan of their unclean presence.’”
LeJ attacks Shiites across Pakistan, but has said it wants to cause a mass displacement of Hazaras or their complete extermination.
“To that end, thousands of Hazaras have been killed, injured or maimed for life. The LeJ’s motives appear to be genocidal, regardless of whether the carnage they have inflicted so far can be technically called genocide,” Shuja says.
Despite being persecuted, Hamzad says the Hazara remain committed to peace, not retaliating with violence.
“We are not using guns because we want peace, that is why we are leaving,” he says. “We can also take guns and stand against them, but we see all humans as brothers and sisters. If they are angry, we have to be patient.”
Fighting and killing will only sustain the cycle of violence, he says.
“We don’t want killing, we don’t want anything, we just want peace. We want to live peacefully and leave others to live peacefully,” he says.
Shuja says the attacks are carried out to “paralyze daily life” for the Hazara community.
“In short, daily life is not safe for the Hazaras. Victims have been children as young as 2 and men and women as old as 70,” he says. “Nobody can go to school, work or place of worship without a genuine fear of being killed. Children cannot get an education, the poor cannot earn a living, and commodity prices have gone up.
“It is a small community of about 500,000 people. Everyone knows or is connected to someone who has been killed or injured. This carnage has been going on for more than a decade, and the [Pakistani] government has utterly failed to bring to justice anyone from the terrorist group.
“The physical, economic and psychological toll is devastating and cross-generational when you live under constant fear of violent death from relentless, unending attacks on your community.”
After two devastating attacks at the start of 2013, Pakistani forces tightened security across Quetta, but Shuja says tougher security and better intelligence is needed to fight LeJ, which runs training camps around Quetta and communicates on the public cellular networks.
Often attacks happen inside of police checkpoints, but perpetrators escape justice, leading to allegations that members of Pakistan’s security forces may be complicit in the attacks, Shuja says.
Amnesty International has also openly criticized the Pakistani government for not protecting the Hazara community and for not prosecuting those responsible.
Shuja says LeJ has political connections and is closely linked to the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) political party, a reincarnation of the banned Sunni sectarian terrorist group Sipah-e-Sahaba.
“The ASWJ leadership consists of influential Sunni religious leaders, some of whom have been implicated in courts in connection with deadly attacks on Shias and inciting violence against them,” Shuja says.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party was in an electoral alliance with ASWJ.
“The coziness of the ruling elite with the party that gives political cover to the terrorist LeJ does not bode well for efforts to stem the murderous tide against the Hazara-Shias in Quetta,” Shuja says.
Both he and Hamzad also criticized the international community for failing to help the Hazara nation.
“The international community can do a lot to stand behind the Hazaras’ right to life, religious liberty, work and education,” Shuja says. “Despite a decade of relentless deadly attacks against them, and the Pakistani government’s lack of genuine will to stop the bloodbath, the international community has shown little to no concern. On the contrary, countries such as Australia have toughened their immigration laws as the bloodbath has intensified. European countries such as Norway and the UK are forcibly deporting asylum seekers.”
He says the international community should at the very least ensure that asylum and immigration laws protect rather than disadvantage those fleeing violence in Quetta, bring attention to the persecution on the international rights agenda, and put pressure on the Pakistani government to come down hard on LeJ.
“The Hazaras of Quetta deserve protection, not abandonment to targeted violence,” Shuja says.
Returning to Afghanistan is difficult, with ethnic tensions there leading to the violence and displacement of Hazaras. Insecurity is rife in the country, which has impacted on Hazaras, often leaving them stranded in their villages because of unsafe roads in the provinces.
The Hazara are targeted at insurgents’ arbitrary checkpoints for supporting the government and working with foreign militaries and organizations.
“The Hazaras support the government and work as interpreters for foreign troops and help international aid organizations, so they are in the crosshairs,” Shuja says.
Figures for the size of the Hazara community vary between three million and eight million worldwide, mostly concentrated in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, with sizable diaspora communities in North America, the Scandinavian countries and Australia.
It is difficult to count how many Hazaras have been killed in violence plaguing Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last three decades.
Shuja said it could be in the tens of thousands, maybe more, in Afghanistan; while in Quetta, the casualties range in the several thousands, although accurate public records are not available.
The High Court in Sydney has delayed the deportation of an elderly Afghan man, just hours before he would have been forcibly flown to Kabul.
The 65-year-old man is from the minority Hazara community and arrived in Australia in 2011 and says he has not lived in Afghanistan for decades.
Early last year, the Refugee Review Tribunal knocked back his application to stay in Australia permanently.
Analysis: Peter Lloyd discusses the case
[The case] still gets considered by one judge as to whether or not there are grounds for this to be stopped, and that matter will be held at the High Court in Sydney via videolink to her [Justice Bell] in Canberra on Thursday afternoon at 4:30[pm].
It’s not an injunction of significance, because this is just delaying until Thursday the process going against this man.
The judge herself wasn’t satisfied that she had a clear enough, a readable enough copy of the original Refugee Review Tribunal’s arguments.
So this is in some sense a technical delay, not a delay on the merits of the case.
The High Court has granted the man an injunction until Thursday so it can decide if there are grounds for an appeal.
The court will then consider more fully looking at the Refugee Review Tribunal’s explanation for why it refused the application.
A solicitor representing the Government on Tuesday argued that the Afghan man had had a chance over the past year to make his application for a stay of deportation and had not done so.
The Government argued that effectively his time was up and the case was over.
Justice Virginia Bell, however, said the Government’s reasons were not strong enough and that she wanted to have a closer look at the tribunal report.
Grave fears for man if returned to Afghanistan
The Taliban is notorious for persecuting Hazara people and refugee advocates fear for the man’s life if he is forcibly repatriated.
“This is one of those rare cases where you can say with some confidence that the probability that those who orchestrate the return of someone like this to Kabul will end up having blood on their hands is pretty high,” said leading Afghanistan academic Professor William Maley.
The man at the centre of the case is illiterate and has lost contact with relatives back home. He says he fled persecution in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Who are the Hazaras?
Though to be of Central Asian decent, most likely from Mongolia and Turkey.
Popular theory is that Hazaras are descendents of Genghis Kahn and his soldiers, who invaded Afghanistan in the 12th century.
Around 7 million live in Afghanistan, in the ethnic region of Hazarajat.
Smaller groups of Hazaras live in Pakistan and Iran.
Hazaras’ facial features are distinctly Mongolian, setting them apart from most Afghans.
Most are Shiite Muslims, as opposed to Sunnis who make up 85 per cent of Afghanistan’s population.
Many Hazaras were killed or forced out of Afghanistan during conflicts in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Historically, they have been oppressed by past governments and openly targetted by the Taliban.
For a long period he settled in Quetta in Pakistan but it too became a dangerous place for a man with his ethnic background.
When the case came before the Refugee Review Tribunal early last year, it agreed that he may be persecuted in his home province of Uruzgan – which has just been vacated by Australian troops – but the tribunal does believe that he could return and live in the Afghan capital.
That is strongly disputed by Sonia Caton, a lawyer and chairman of the Refugee Council of Australia.
Ms Caton says the man has no family in Kabul to go back to.
“The reasoning around the relocation to Kabul doesn’t accord with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) eligibility guidelines for protection in our view,” she said.
“Furthermore, he has vulnerabilities such as his age, his illiteracy, the fact that he has no contacts or relatives at all in Kabul and hardly any in Afghanistan [which] would make him a very serious consideration for complementary protection, and no reasons were given for refusing complementary protection.”
A week ago the man was taken into custody and put into the Villawood detention centre in Sydney.
The tribunal’s judgment in refusing to provide a visa is also being challenged by Professor Maley, who has provided expert opinion to the lawyers.
“The Hazaras have had centuries of discrimination and persecution in Afghanistan. The reason for this is that they are members of the Shiite minority within the Muslim faith in Afghanistan,” he said.
“They’re also physically rather distinctive; they have east Asian appearance rather than southern European, and that means that when you get groups like the Taliban who tend to regard Shiite Muslims as heretics, the Hazaras are the obvious targets.
“We saw 2,000 Hazaras killed in just three days in northern Afghanistan in Mazar-e Sharif in August 1998.
“In December 2011 there was a bombing attack on a Hazara place of worship in Kabul itself, and on that particular day of attacks, over 50 people were killed in Afghanistan.
“Hazaras are tremendously apprehensive that they will again be targeted in a very substantial way as the Taliban seek to press their campaign of terror in different parts of the country.”
Ambassador voices concerns over deportation
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canberra, Nasir Andisha, says his hands are tied, and he is shocked about the deportation.
“It’s a sovereign country’s decision to decide whether to keep this person or to send him to Afghanistan,” he said.
Mr Andisha says the Afghan embassy in Canberra has not issued any papers to say the man is an Afghan.
“The specific case of this gentleman – and again, this is what I’m hearing from media, I don’t have any documents to tell me this – in the specific case of this man, a 65-year-old man with no social support network in Kabul returning to a city he has not probably seen in the past and doesn’t have any relatives or siblings or anyone to look after him or receive him from the airport,” he said.
“And it’s cold – I don’t know where he’s going to live, where he’s going to stay. That’s why I’m really concerned.”
“As a human being, also, I don’t like this idea of course. But it’s nothing to do with the embassy to stop it or not to stop it because this is, again, a sovereign country.”
Mr Andisha says the Australian Government has not asked for input from the Afghan ambassador on the case.
In a possible corollary, the deportation order may backfire. The ambassador says his government is unlikely to accept the forced return of a citizen, so it’s likely the man may reach Kabul only to be sent back to Australia.
He fled Pakistan for the relative safety of Australia, only to meet tragedy in a detention camp
Nobody can understand the pain and plight of 22-year-old Mohammad Naqi*. A father murdered in Quetta. A forced migration from his hometown. A brother stabbed in a “detention camp” in Nauru. And a sister who died in his lap due to lack of treatment in the very same camp. Ironically, this family of three had fled from Quetta to protect their lives.
“I am safe today, but I have paid a huge price for this security. I am a broken man. I want to piece myself together again, but sometimes, I just don’t have the strength to do so.”
Even for a community used to migration, the concept of ‘Home’ is fast-becoming alien to many Hazaras. “How can you talk about home, when we weren’t safe in the sanctity of our houses?” Naqi bellowed.
Naqi’s plight started in 2012, when his father was shot dead in a Quetta bazaar — for the crime of being a Hazara. They buried him alongside their mother, who had passed away in in 2001.
Orphaned and insecure, the three siblings decided to make the move to Australia, a country that had been accepting Hazara asylum-seekers. “Some family friends had migrated to Australia in 2008. We contacted the same human trafficker who had handled their case,” narrated Naqi. “After an initial deposit was made, we set off for Malaysia from Karachi, on a legitimate tourist visa. From Malaysia, we were supposed to go to Indonesia, from where we were to be smuggled to Australia by boat.”
It all went accirding to plan, till the siblings arrived in Australia — in February 2013.
“Even before we reached Australian shores, we were apprehended by Australian authorities. We were then sent to Manus Island, to live in tents in what they call detention centres. That’s where I first lost my elder brother, and then my younger sister,” Naqi recalled.
These detention centres are the cornerstone of the Australian immigration mechanism for asylum-seekers, explained Perth-based Jasmina Brankovich of the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN). “The John Howard-led government instituted what is known as the ‘Pacific Solution’ — offshore detention centres were created in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, from where asylum-seekers were to be brought to Australia,” she explained.
In theory, all asylum-seekers from across the globe are to be vetted at these detention centres — the reality is less sanitised.
“My brother, Saqib*, spoke some English,” narrated Naqi. “We met some African refugees at the same camp. They lived a few rows away from us. They didn’t speak English, so it was difficult to communicate with them. For some reason – I think it was over food – they quarrelled with Saqib one day. From then on, our relations became strained with them. One night, there was another altercation. The African men stabbed my brother, and there was nowhere I could go for medical help. He died the same night.”
Naqi also lost his sister, Salma*, because there was no medical treatment available for her when she contracted fever. “By the time, a doctor was sent to visit, it was too late. Apparently my sister was suffering from pneumonia. Salma breathed her last in my arms. In my arms.”
Alleging “inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers” at the hands of Australian authorities, Brankovich argued that the phenomenon needs to be placed in the context of racism in Australia. “Refugees are used as a political football,” she said. “There is a staggering amount of ignorance in Australia on the issue of asylum-seekers. The Hazara people are suffering genocide, they have a right to seek asylum in Australia.”
On the Australian government’s part, all efforts were focussed on resettling permanent Afghan Hazara refugees living in Pakistan. Sources working on migration from Pakistan, including Hazara migration, claimed that the Australian government was initially working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resettle registered Afghan Hazara refugees in Pakistan to Australia.
Per the initial arrangement, being discussed in February 2013, about 3,000 families could have been accommodated, but after carrying out a headcount, it turned out that there were only a little over 700 registered Afghan Hazara refugees living in Pakistan. This opened up space and the opportunity for Pakistani Hazaras to be accommodated in the asylum programme. The arrangement currently depends on the various agencies short-listing families deemed most vulnerable.
“In truth, Australia is still a colonial nation, a country that has not set itself free from its colonial past,” claimed Brankovich. “Boats are a very small percentage of transportation means adopted by asylum-seekers. But there is manipulation of Australian public opinion against asylum-seekers. When you visit detention centres, you’ll find people who are irreparably damaged. There is absolute mental health disintegration there.”
The pathetic situation at detention centres came to the fore in Australia as a team of 15 doctors, who headed to Christmas Island to inspect medical facilities and the immigration process, issued a 92-page “letter of concern” that detailed gross medical malpractices by Australian authorities in their attempt to divert asylum-seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
The doctors, employed by the International Health and Management Services (IHMS), alleged that their employers and the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) have made decisions that “do not appear to have always been made in the best interest of patients.”
Among other explosive revelations, the doctors claimed: “Patients are now being cleared on the basis of an ineffective assessment and without pathology. Inappropriate reallocation of doctors away from clinics to perform more of these clinically unreliable assessments results in the deterioration of chronic disease and delayed treatment of acute illness.”
In related developments, on Jan 19, 2014, the Nauru government not only sacked but also deported its only magistrate, Peter Law. It also cancelled the visa of its chief justice, Geoffrey Eames, when he tried to intervene and prevent Law’s deportation. Both men were Australian citizens. It is widely believed that the action was prompted due to the pair’s treatment of asylum-seekers.
While Australia struggles with accommodating asylum-seekers in a societal fabric that is tainted by racism, families like Naqi’s have broken down. The Hazara people in Pakistan are a people defined by migration: Naqi’s grandparents migrated from Afghanistan and he himself had to move to Australia. He is now living in Sydney as a permanent Australian resident, but in search of safety, Naqi lost the very family he tried to save. “Some nights I wake up with dreams of holding my brother’s body. And some nights I wake holding my sister,” he says in a low voice. The nightmare, it seems, simply never ends.
In Karachi, Pakistan, Hussain points to a photograph of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
A young filmmaker travelled to Quetta, Pakistan, to find out why so many Hazaras are risking their lives to seek refuge in Australia. Matthew Abbott found one Hazara man, Hussain, brave enough to allow him to film his desperate, dangerous bid for asylum from the start. It is still far from over.
At an airbase in southern Afghanistan on October 28, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Australian soldiers that he hoped the war they had been fighting had produced a country “that is better for our presence”.
Perhaps another product of that war is the asylum-seeker status of a Pakistani man in his 30s named Hussain. Hussain is currently eking out an existence at a remote caravan site in rural Australia. On a bridging visa, he is unable to make money to send home to his wife and children, who are sheltering in Quetta, Pakistan, just across the Afghan border from where the Australian PM was speaking.
Hussain is a Hazara, a member of the largely Shiite Muslim ethnic minority whose distinctive Asiatic features make them an easy target for religious persecution by Sunni extremists. Following the Allied invasion of Afghanistan, Taliban leaders regrouped in Quetta, and Taliban-linked organisations set about targeting Hazaras with car bombs and street shootings.
Hussain’s two brothers, in attempts to reach Australia, had disappeared and were presumed dead. Hussain himself had already unsuccessfully attempted the journey to Australia, but was determined to try again.
The city of Quetta is a hostile environment for journalists (at least two have been killed in bomb blasts this year, murders for which the Taliban-linked group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility), which is perhaps one reason that the violence committed against Hazaras there has been under-reported, despite attacks against Hazaras in Pakistan being characterised assystematic genocide.
Photographer and filmmaker Matthew Abbott (no relation to Australia’s prime minister) travelled there in March 2012, posing as a tourist and gaining access to Hazara Town, one of two Hazara enclaves in the city.
“I wanted to come to Quetta really to find out why Hazaras were willing to make such a perilous journey,” he says, referring to the many Hazaras who entrust their lives to people smugglers in the hope of reaching Australia.
Abbott arrived in Quetta as a funeral was being held for six Hazaras who had been gunned down while travelling on the notoriously dangerous Spini Road hours earlier.
That day he met a family whose son had been recently murdered. Weeks later Abbott learned that Musa, whom he’d hired to be his taxi driver during his time in Quetta, had been shot dead in his car. Such was the climate of fear that the photographer found no one prepared to talk about their plans to flee. But later he was told about a Quetta man living in Karachi who was preparing to connect with people smugglers in Indonesia. The man, Hussain, was willing to tell his story.
Abbott met Hussain at a Pizza Hut in an upmarket area of Karachi, where he was working as assistant manager. Hazaras are also openly targeted in Karachi, as The Global Mail has reported. Hussain had a steady job, and was able to send money home to extended family in Quetta, but he and his wife and children were living in a slum, Qasba Colony, in which they felt themselves to be virtual prisoners because they were terrified to leave their neighbourhood. Hussain had to negotiate dangerous, extremist-populated areas as part of his daily commute.
Hussain and filmmaker Matt Abbott in Sydney.
Hussain’s two brothers had previously left Quetta in attempts to reach Australia, but had disappeared and were presumed dead. Hussain himself had already unsuccessfully attempted the journey to Australia, but was determined to try again.
Hussain allowed Abbott to begin filming his daily life while he made preparations to leave, granting him intimate access to the mechanics of people smuggling and to debates with friends and family over the merits of once again putting himself in the hands of the smugglers.
Once Hussain had obtained the necessary visa, Abbott followed him home to Quetta, where the would-be asylum seeker said goodbye to his wife and two young daughters, whom he left in the care of other family members, and finally set off with Abbott.
At Quetta airport, Abbott’s luck ran out. He was detained by security officials who questioned him about his activities and confiscated some of his footage.
Although separated from Hussain, Abbott later arranged to get a video camera to him so he could continue filming the journey himself. Hussain delivered: he filmed in safe houses, and people smugglers’ homes on his route through South-East Asia and, finally, his crossing of a wild stretch of ocean in a rickety boat.
Nearly a year later, Abbott received a message: it was from Hussain, who was in Australia. Reunited in Sydney, the pair headed to the Opera House; they had often talked about one day meeting there for coffee.
“I don’t know about my future here, Matt,” says Hussain in the film. “The worst pressure is Mr Tony Abbott says we won’t get the visas, the permanent visas.”
Prime Minister Abbott’s government has reintroduced punitive schemes that could see someone like Hussain re-enter detention and even be sent back home. In the meantime, Hussain has been given no indication as to when he will be permitted to look for work.
For his fellow Hazaras, who may be hoping to flee Pakistan, where the killing and kidnapping continues, or who are forced to leave Afghanistan, where they no longer have the protection of Australian troops, the future is particularly uncertain.
Prime Minister Abbott declared that he will continue to honour the war’s brave military casualties: “We mourn them, we remember them, we honour them, we want to work with their families. We will never forget.” Less clear is what he will be doing with the refugees of this same war.
COMMENT | This week marks what I believe is a first for South Australia: an ayslum seeker, who arrived here by boat as an unaccompanied minor, has graduated from high school.
After fleeing Afghanistan and making it to our shores, Ali has excelled in his studies despite all language barriers.
Yesterday, he finished high school and now awaits news of his acceptance to university.
This lad has become part of my family. He is my son. Over the past few years, I have helped and watched him grow from a lost soul to a productive and enthusiastic member of our society – one who is not only studying hard in a new language to better his own future, but one who has dedicated his life to helping Australians understand the global issue of asylum seekers. He is a public speaker, and dedicates his time and energy to help his fellow Hazara peers to improve their life too. He’s an amazing individual. And he’s only 18.
A few years ago, the federal government started a community detention program for unaccompanied minors – asylum seekers (“boat people”) who were teenagers who had made the voyage without any parents or family. The program took these teenagers out of the harsh regime of Christmas Island and other adult detention centres and put them into staffed detention houses in the community where they could get 24-hour support and supervision, start attending school and begin to normalise their life. There has NEVER been an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker who has not been accepted as a refugee.
Through Baptist Care SA, I was asked to join the program and was in the first wave of volunteer mentors to be matched with one of the teenagers in community detention. It was one of those rare matches that was perfect. Ali is now living independently, but he and I have become a father/son team. He’s accepted as my son by both family and friends.
Of all the unaccompanied minors who have been through the system so far, I believe Ali was the first in the State (and, I believe, nationally, but I can’t confirm that) to graduate from English language school to attend regular high school, and he’s now the first in the State to complete high school. He’s applied to do IT at university next year, and considering that he’s maintained an A/B average, I’m sure he’ll be accepted.
While this is a positive story, I believe that, as a country, we are creating the very world that we fear.
Instead of compassion and neighbourly love, we are building a world of bigotry, hatred and racial unrest. I can’t understand why we want that future for our children. The only way to give our kids a better life is to teach them to embrace the tapestry of life and show compassion to those who need it most. As Buddha said, we are the heir to our actions. If we hate people, they’ll learn to hate us back. If we welcome them and help them adjust to our culture, they’ll embrace us and contribute to our society.
I have a relative who recently posted on Facebook that we should “sink the boats”. He hates asylum seekers, almost obsessively, yet he donates furniture to refugees, spends his weekends helping mates, and absolutely does not condone mass murder. The fact that he has completely de-humanised “boat people” is an indictment on just how much our politicians and media have managed to destroy Australia’s compassion. Asylum seekers are no more than broken toys to be discarded in the hard rubbish. He does not associate “sinking the boats” with the mass death of women, children and displaced men.
As a country, we need to change the conversation. If “boat people” are criminals, like our politicians want us to believe, then why aren’t they facing our criminal courts like every other criminal in the country? They don’t face the courts because they’ve committed no crime. The language is a misleading technicality because international laws state that anyone can seek asylum by any means necessary. There is no “queue” to jump and they’re not “country hopping”: countries that are not a signatory to the Refugee Convention will just deport them right back to danger, so they have to keep moving.
I used to believe that only the rich were asylum seekers because they could afford to pay people smugglers, but since educating myself I’ve realised how many families sell their home and their livelihoods just to get one child to safety. They destroy their own future for the sake of their child. If that isn’t love, what is it?
One of my Afghan friends recently attended his sister’s wedding in Quetta City in Pakistan, where Hazara people are killed weekly (a fact that our media fails to acknowledge). In his first week there, within three blocks of his family home there was a suicide bombing, a rocket launch and a bus blown up. Thank God he survived, but if it was my family living there, I’d do all that I could to get them out.
Australians are a compassionate people who have lost their way. We are one of the richest countries in the world and have more space and capacity than most other countries. The number of “boat people” we received annually during the Labor government was less than the number received monthly by many other countries. We were something like 49th on the list of countries receiving asylum seekers. A quick Google search would dispel most myths, but sadly those who hate are not interested in educating themselves. It’s only those who love who seek to understand both sides of the argument so they can present a logical defence.
Ali is a shining example of how much asylum seekers and refugees can contribute to our society – just like founder of Westfield, Frank Lowy, and Hieu Van Le, the Lieutenant Governor of South Australia.
For the sake of our children and the future of this country, we need to reject media sound bites and political fear-mongering.
It doesn’t take much research to find out the truth.
Until we, as a society, change our attitude, our politicians will continue to blame the victim and build an Australia full of hatred and racial unrest. Personally, I don’t want that for Ali. I want him and future generations to live in a harmonious world.
Yesterday was a wonderful day because an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker has motivated himself to take on a part time job so he can pay rent and afford to go to school, do homework, and study in a foreign language without any parental pressure or guidance.
He completed his schooling without the kind of support and luxuries that so many Australian kids take for granted. His success is entirely his own. And if you think that’s the trait of a bad person, then you need to question your own definition of morality.
Rod Lewis is a volunteer mentor with the Baptist Care SA Refugee Services. He is an SA finalist in the Australian Local Hero Award – part of the 2014 Australian of the Year awards.
A POIGNANT photo taken by a Hazara refugee of asylum seekers emerging from below deck for a breath of fresh air has won the inaugural Photo of the Year at the Walkley Awards.
The image, shot by Barat Ali Batoor and published in The Global Mail, is the first of five winners to be announced in the prestigious annual awards, along with the winners of the Nikon-Walkley Portrait Prize and Nikon-Walkley Community/Regional Prize.
This year is the first time a “photo of the year” has been selected from all entrants to the awards to embody the year in news.
Barat Ali Batoor’s winning photo, “The First Day at Sea”. Source: Supplied
Batoor began documenting the displacement of his own Hazara people in 2005 as they fled from Afghanistan and Pakistan to safety abroad.
The Hazara are a Persian-speaking Shia Muslim minority that is the third-largest ethnic group in Arghanistan.
In September 2012, he became part of the story, fleeing Kabul with his camera in hand. Travelling with 92 other passengers hidden below deck to escape detection by the Water Police, he shot a selection of images capturing the long route through Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and by sea to Australia.
“It is a journey of sudden midnight departures, long road trips, surreptitious transactions, treks through jungles, and terror at sea,” Batoor said, of his essay.
“It is a journey that mixes fear, boredom and extreme loneliness. A journey that sometimes ends in joy, sometimes in despair and sometimes in death. Few people – except for the refugees themselves – ever get to see this reality.”
Batoor’s boat ran aground on the rocks and his camera was ruined but remarkably, his images survived. He was then detained and robbed by Indonesian authorities but escaped. Many of the other people he met on his arduous journey didn’t survive.
“In the end, I was one of the lucky ones,” he said. “Unlike most Hazaras, I was quickly found to be a refugee and resettled in Melbourne. In the meantime, I kept taking photos … my hope is that, at the very least, these pictures can tell their story.”
When a person under persecution flees his country, he automatically becomes orphan. There is a good saying that country is mother and a person without country becomes orphan. Life becomes miserable as an undocumented stranger in other countries where a human’s basic rights and needs are not given to him. An asylum seeker’s life is a miserable life in real.
Asylum seeking is an old issue which was focussed upon for the first time by the international coordinated efforts through League of Nations in early 20th century. The purpose was inter alia to protect human rights and render humanitarian assistance and resettlement solutions to the persecuted people fleeing their countries – whom I call the orphans. After establishment of United Nations Organization under its popular Charter in 1945, other refugee rights promoting organizations were founded and reinforced. UNHCR is one of such entities which is mandated to promote and run programs for protection of asylum seekers and refugees.
Indonesia is a transit area for thousands of asylum seekers annually whose final destination is predominantly Australia. But among them are the asylum seekers that prefer to stay in Indonesia and approach UNHCR with a hope to get assistance to return to a safe normal life.
As the only main UN entity for refugees, UNHCR is the first and the last hope of the asylum seekers that avoid joining the dangerous boat journey. Most of them had to flee their countries, to join the world of orphanhood, because of persecution, violence and life threats. They lost many things like peace, family members, honour, career and country. Has the UNHCR in Indonesia played a good role as their first and the last hope? As one of the asylum seekers my answer to this question is negative unfortunately. Not only this but also because of poor management, low performance capacity of some staffs and inadequate human and material resources, in several cases, UNHCR has exacerbated the already vulnerable mental and physical conditions of detained asylum seekers particularly.
One of the biggest problems is UNHCR’s unbalanced and disorganised attention towards different Immigration Detention Centres. It has contributed to creation of a big difference, in terms of interviews and case processing, among IDCs in several locations. For example asylum seekers in Tanjun Pinang and Medan IDCs are interviewed within 1-3 months after registration, but those in Jakarta and Surabaya IDCs are usually interviewed within 6-12 months after registration. Similarly the time period taken to process cases and issue results after interview considerably depends on the manner and even nationality of the UNHCR Case Officers. In this way many unlucky asylum seekers have to wait for years in detention until they get refugee status from UNHCR. The Luck-UNHCR inter-relation clarifies that UNHCR has two eyes. One is blind and the other is sighted. Those in front of the sighted eye are lucky and those in front of the blind eye are misfortunate. But why should they suffer when their bad luck has roots in the incapability and incompetency of UNHCR? Actually their bad luck can be turned into good luck by curing the blind eye of UNHCR through better management of the resources, fair allocation of staff, capacity building and more accountability of Case Officers.
UNHCR’s inaccessibility and selfish policies towards detained asylum seekers make their lives more miserable. While the life is already very troublesome for them because of poor behaviour and bad treatment of the Indonesian Immigration staffs. The fact that Indonesia has not signed the Refugee Convention is always enough reason for the Immigration Officers to ignore asylum seekers’ basic needs and treat them as criminals or undignified people. They do not want to understand that the asylum seekers are honoured personalities back in their countries and being an asylum seeker is not a choice for them. In this situation in detention, UNHCR’s inaccessibility and incapability exacerbates their anguish.
A local government official flicks through the UNHCR files of asylum seekers registered in his subdistrict. PHOTO: BARAT ALI BATOOR Source: theglobalmail
For asylum seekers in detention, contact to UNHCR has become an impossible job. Weekly, on Fridays, two hours contact time is allocated to the total asylum seekers and refugees. There are around 10,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia. If half of this amount try to contact UNHCR on a Friday and if each successful person talks for 12 minutes, out of 5,000 only 10 can get the contact. In percentage there is only 0.2% chance of making the contact which is equivalent to no chance. I have tried several Fridays, but even by saying prayers and using certain magical words I have not been able to make a single contact. I am sure even the best magician in the world cannot make the contact for you! As far as the general email inbox of UNHCR (email@example.com) is concerned, I doubt if any one is assigned to check it properly and respond to the incoming correspondence. As far as I remember, none of the emails that my friends and I have sent to this inbox have received any response nor have there been any outcomes resulting from them. On the other hand, the Case Officers deny to give their contact number and email address to their interviewees, claiming that they are not allowed to do so. So the detained asylum seekers cannot receive information regarding their case nor can they provide any new vital information and concern for the case. I would like to ask UNHCR and concerned entities if this is fair. Should a detained anguished asylum seeker have the right to contact the office mandated to listen to his concerns and process his case? After interview if his family members have been recently killed in a bomb explosion or suicide attack or targeted killing, how can he add this to his case? How should he inform the Case Officer or UNHCR that he is going crazy in the ambiguous world of asylum seekers because his dearest ones have been killed recently? Does this type of new condition created after interview have importance for UNHCR? Principally this type of information should be added to the case which definitely helps to make a correct decision. If the information is important then how the contact should be made?
It is a weird situation. Instead of having access to lawyers and facilities for consulting and organizing cases, asylum seekers are even further deprived of contacts with their case processing organization.
If there is a will, the problems can be solved by UNHCR. They should increase the days and hours of contact and assign more Case Officers to listen to the issues and concerns. In this way the contacts to UNHCR will be made easily which can lead to a better condition for the Case Officers to give their contact numbers to their interviewees unhesitatingly. Because there will not be a flood of irrelevant phone calls to them. There will be other accessible relevant contact points available in UNHCR. Thus a proper communication between Case Officers and their interviewees will be insured.
In response to such queries I have been usually told that UNHCR does not have adequate human resources. But this point cannot be a satisfactory justification anymore. It is a decade that UNHCR Indonesia operates with high number of asylum seekers. So the administrative needs and matters should have been solved by now. Its a long period. UNHCR Indonesia should get approval of enough funds through effective and efficient reasoning and proper justification of the need. Asylum seekers in Indonesia has a long history and has turned into a permanent phenomenon. Unfortunately the issue of inadequate resources is being used as a mere justification instead of seeking solution for it. Is it fair to let the asylum seekers suffer because of poor capacity of UNHCR? Why is not this capacity developed?
It is one year that I am hearing about policies of UNHCR Indonesia repeatedly. These policies sound very rigid and non-humanitarian which show incompatibility with UNHCR’s mandated roles. The asylum seekers suffer from post-incident trauma and are worried about their families remained in crisis. On the other hand, they are treated inhumanely by Immigration Officers. In this bad situation, instead of helping them urgently, UNHCR’s shortcomings and oversight cause them to remain in detention for longer ambiguous periods. Remained with no other option they conduct hunger-strike to communicate and receive attention and to say that they are forgotten and the blind eye can not see them. But their final attempt for communication is suppressed by UNHCR’s policy. According to this policy UNHCR does not visit those on hunger-strike. So they are further abandoned in the dire situation. I understand that this policy is designed to prevent other potential hunger-strikes. But it would be fair only if the asylum seekers had other possible ways of contact and they were not compelled to conduct hunger strikes merely to communicate their concerns and cry out that they are victims in the unbalanced attention of UNHCR towards the detention centres.
While Australia has increased its refugee quota for Indonesia to 700 per year, UNHCR’s working manner still remains slow to the extent that some asylum seekers have to wait for a year to be interviewed. Those being interviewed within 1-2 months are the lucky ones because they are in front of the sighted eye. Why is one eye of UNHCR blind? This can also be part of a policy. One month ago a credible person told me that UNHCR might not be able to provide 700 refugees to Australia this year because its process is very slow. I thought it was totally unfair if UNHCR might not manage to meet the quota while thousands of deservers are crazily waiting to get a pass through the refugee process. This maybe a wrong forecast and very pessimistic view, but one thing is sure that UNHCR in Indonesia tries to keep the number of refugees under a limit. In this process the victimized asylum seekers should be deliberately ignored for long periods. Therefore the slow working manner and lack of will to improve the system might have connections to this policy. The reason to this policy can be financial, operational and political. Maybe UNHCR thinks that if the asylum seekers were given refugee status in a fairly quick process, other asylum seekers around the world would be encouraged to migrate to Indonesia. This means more refugees, more asylum seekers and more load of works on the poorly organized weak structure of UNHCR. This policy makes a lesson of the asylum seekers in Indonesia to send a discouraging message to others. This is totally inhumane and victimizes the genuine asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia.
The problem is that UNHCR does not want to solve the problems by confronting them but instead turns a blind eye to them. The current working approach and continuation of unjust policies is not the solution to the issues. They do not suit the humanitarian nature of its works. I know that UNHCR’s work is not easy. It is full of problems and challenges. But they should not be used as excuse to do improper things. There is always a proper way of doing things. UNHCR should change and promote its approaches according to the need.
“Who are the Hazaras?” came a question in a subtly taunting tone by an Australian man walking by as we lit candles in the memory of more than 130 Hazara victims, killed in two bomb blasts targeting the Hazara-Shia-dominated neighbourhood, Alamdar Road. The two bomb blasts in Quetta, Pakistan killed at least 130 people including two Australian Hazaras. Over 200 still lie in different hospitals; with many permanently maimed, and a number of them burnt beyond recognition.
While the rest of the world slept peacefully, some because they were unaware and others because they might well be indifferent, 87 of the dead bodies lay on Alamdar Road as their families and community sat awake in a sit-in protest for justice. Thousands of protesters who were joined by women and children sat there; braving the frigid cold worsened by severe rain. Nothing could shake their resolve as nothing would ever lessen their anguish and grief unless justice was served.
Even though the protest was initially met by inattention and unconcern, their fortitude and perseverance eventually started attracting attention. It was not long before Pakistanis of all backgrounds joined the protest; outnumbering even the Hazaras and Shias. It was for the first time in the history of Pakistan that everyone participated in a protest, which was for a racially and religiously distinct group. Here was a new history in the making. Here was a protest which was history’s most nonviolent and peaceful one with dead bodies lying un-buried unless justice was dispensed.
The Hazaras are one of the most targeted communities in Pakistan mainly because they carry distinct Mongolian racial features and religious belief: Shia Islam. They have been shot in cold blood, have been slaughtered, their skilled and professionals workers slain, students killed on their way to universities, pilgrims lined up and murdered. Not even their women are spared now just because a religiously extremist group, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, which wants to drive every single one of them out of Quetta and Pakistan, detests them.
Not only in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan the Hazaras have long suffered racial and religious based discriminations.
Despite the brutal violence they have been subject to, the Hazaras have never reacted violently. They have adopted peace and nonviolence as their response to the murderous onslaught. They have lost thousands of their people throughout these years, but they have always come with nonviolent means: This historic sit-in protest in Quetta for four days was its infallible proof acknowledged and appreciated by people throughout the world.
While we sat and watched our heroic community beside the dead bodies for 80+ hours protesting peacefully for their basic right; that is the right to live, tears flowed down my mother’s cheek as she confided something into me. She started by “ how will her mother explain to the little child that her father is no longer alive?” The seven-year-old girl, whose father decided on that night that they should quickly eat and maybe watch TV together?
He had not started eating yet as he heard the first explosion. He got up from dastarkhan (table–cloth) and said in panic, “The explosion sounded very close” and just like many others, he too ran to the scene to help. As he got there to help the victims of the blast, second blast ripped through the crowd, and you guessed it right: It took his life. Ghulam Rasool is no more. Who knew his family would never see him again, they would not share the table again, and they would never be able to watch TV together. Like the cold weather, her blood froze in her veins.
But the story does not end here. “The painful part is not his death alone,” explained my mother to me. “It is rather the fact that, because of the dangerous proximity to the blast, Ghulam Rasool’s body has disappeared like 16 other bodies. No one has been able to find them. Like Ghulam’s family who sits there and looking heavenwards for help, I am devoid of all emotion too. I just think of that seven-year old girl who anxiously awaits her father’s return.” Tears continued to fall from mum’s eyes as she says, the seven-year-old asks her mother, “ Mum its too cold outside, do you want me to go and ask dad to close his shop and come eat with us now”.
But I am still thinking about the question that stranger asked. Who are the Hazaras? I really wanted to answer him but I was busy lighting candle for the vigil.
I wanted to answer his question that continued bothering me. Who are the Hazaras? Hazaras are the ones who, after witnessing history’s worst violence in Quetta sat in protest with dead bodies lying for four days in chilling cold and unstoppable rain. They kept the bodies un-buried even though it is religiously sanctioned to bury the dead as quickly as possible. Hazaras are the ones who despite all the persecution continue to practice nonviolence, remaining peaceful that is acknowledged by everyone in Pakistan and world. Hazaras are the ones whose innocent children sit among the protesters; desperately waiting for their father to be seen. Yet Hazaras are the ones whose response to all violence is nonviolence, and all brutality reciprocated by humanity. That is what the Hazaras actually are.
But I thought just like many others, this person might not care about the genocide of a community. But he, like the comity of nations, must reassess his priorities if genocide is taking place right before his naked eye in 21st century. The century that promises humanity its pinnacle in every aspect of life, from justice to prosperity.
That he asked this question so casually explains why Hazaras keep suffering. And a community facing genocide is perhaps the most bone-chillingly straightforward answer to his question.
Protester hold placards against Australia’s new immigration policy, 27th July, Melbourne. –Photo by Tanver, used under a Creative Commons (CC) license.
The trend in refugee resettlement in Australia a few years ago was something like this: if you were a Hazara, you had somewhere in the order of 90% chance of being accepted as a refugee and resettled in Australia. Fast forward five years, and the situation is completely different. If you are refugee, and you come to Australia on a boat, you have virtually no chance of being resettled in Australia, albeit you are a member of one of the most persecuted communities in the world.
At first thought, this dramatic change in Australia’s immigration policy would indicate that the situation in countries from where the Hazaras were fleeing would have improved significantly and so their claims of being persecuted in their homelands no longer remained true. But a few Google searches on the internet and a quick visit to the social networking websites show rather the opposite. Where on one hand the persecution of this minority group in Afghanistan continues unabated, on the other hand, in Pakistan the severity of attacks on Hazaras has increased year by year.
So, if the situation of these would-be-asylum-seekers has not changed, what has actually changed that has resulted in such a sharp decline in the acceptance rate of Hazaras as refugees?
Faced with an intense pressure from the opposition on the issue of boat arrivals, the Labour government had to resort to one of the harshest measures it has taken in recent years to stop the boats coming to our shores. Last month’s deal with PNG followed by a MoU with Nauru will see anyone coming to Australia on a boat sent to the Pacific nations for processing and eventual resettlement, should their refugee claims be accepted.
If there was any ambiguity about the intention of our government, the timing of this latest immigration policy announcement should clarify that. With an election looming, the best our Prime Minister could do to assure Australia he is tough enough of a man to stop the boats and protect our borders from “illegals” was to introduce the latest of our government’s punitive policies. This may as well win him some votes, but at the cost of hundreds of lives; lives that will not be lost in the sea between Indonesia and Christmas Island, but in the streets of Quetta and Kabul, lives that would no longer be able to escape death and would remain trapped in the ghettos that Hazara localities in those countries have become.
Had the Rudd government been serious about tackling the issue of people smuggling and boat arrivals, it would have taken immediate steps to take the issue back to the source countries. Despite repeated calls by the Australian Hazara communities to engage in strong dialogue with the Pakistani government on the issue of Hazara genocide, a working mechanism involving the UN which could ensure that the lives of Hazaras in Pakistan are safeguarded by the Pakistani government, and an accessible means for Hazaras to register with the UNHCR in Quetta, what we have seen is a rather reluctant approach in the form of a telephonic conversation between our Foreign Minister and his Pakistani counterpart, a Federal Minster replying that Australia can only do as much as it has done while our forces are still based in neighboring Afghanistan, and the repulsive act of working with Pakistani agencies on ethnic profiling at airports around Pakistan so that the exodus of any Hazara from Pakistan is made as difficult as possible.
It is evident that in the wake of unchanging miserable situation for Hazaras, all that has changed is the attitude of Labour and our once rational Prime Minister. The man who had abolished TPVs and closed down detention centres has now adopted the policies of his predecessor. The care and compassion that he had urged Australians to show towards people fleeing war and persecution are what he is now refusing to display himself. In the name of war against people smuggling, he has now made the vulnerable asylum seekers pay the ultimate price.
The PNG and Nauru “punishment” camps could potentially stop Hazaras from getting on boats. The new policy might as well help Labour win the forthcoming election. But the serious repercussions of this policy on the lives of Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and indeed every asylum – seeker and refugee from any corner of the world, will result in an image of our nation being portrayed in the civilized world as that of an unjust, inhumane and cruel nation, not to mention the unavoidably negative image of the Labour party in the minds of thousands of Hazaras in Australia.
Tahir Mohseni, 19, outside his Dandenong share house, spent six months in detention before a High Court challenge killed off the proposed Malaysia people swap. He now lives and studies in Victoria. Picture: Aaron Francis Source: TheAustralian
SHABBIR Mohseni arrived at Christmas Island last Friday knowing of the Australian government’s stated intention to send him and other unaccompanied minors to Papua New Guinea “in due course”.
But the 16-year-old also knew that when his older brother faced being sent to Malaysia in 2011 the threat never eventuated and now Tahir Mohseni, 19, is living and studying in Melbourne.
Mr Mohseni and Shabbir are the eldest of six children of a former tailor and his wife living in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the scene of persistent and intensifying violence and recognised as a dangerous place for Shia Muslims.
Mr Mohseni is happy and relieved his younger brother is safe on dry land and in the care of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, though he is worried Shabbir may not get to start the life he hoped for him. At his share house in Dandenong, Mr Mohseni pores over news reports for clues about whether the government will really send teenagers to PNG. “I am not sure what will happen with the government, if the system is (going to be) changed,” he says. “The election is coming, everything could be going to change.”
Shabbir has told his family he would rather risk being transferred to PNG under Kevin Rudd’s new rules than try to survive by himself in Indonesia or return to a life in fear of Sunni militants.
Mr Mohseni knows from experience that Australia’s asylum-boat policy can change very fast, and the fortunes of those in detention with it. He was 17 in May 2011 when he boarded a boat with 31 other asylum-seekers and a kitten near Jakarta and sailed into Julia Gillard’s Malaysia Solution.
In six months of detention on Christmas Island and in Darwin, he feared expulsion to Kuala Lumpur, but a High Court challenge killed off the proposed Malaysia people swap and he is now a permanent resident, studying welding and working part-time jobs.
He sends a small amount of money to his parents and four youngest siblings in Pakistan.
“My father had to leave his shop because of threats — they are living almost in hiding, it is very hard for them,” he said.
Mr Mohseni said he warned Shabbir about Labor’s new rules denying boatpeople settlement.
“Before Shabbir got on the boat last week, I told him about the new program to send everyone to PNG — I said, ‘If you come here that will happen with you.’ He told me: ‘If I work here in Indonesia I will have a very hard time, no one cares what happens to you, but if I go to PNG it will be more better because I will be in the care of Australia.’ “
Mr Mohseni had not heard from his brother since that phone call and was relieved yesterday to see a photo of him being brought ashore by the Australian navy at Flying Fish Cove.
Afghan Hazara asylum seekers, English teacher Sayed Kamaluddin Mousani (left) and Zahir, in Puncak, Indonesia. Photograph: Stea Lim
The chatter stops mid-conversation as the face of the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, flickers across the television screen in Puncak, a mountain town about 100km from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. As the footage cuts to rows of army green tents flanked by palm trees, the asylum seekers watch intently, trying to compute whether they are staring at their future.
The news of Rudd’s boat people bombshell – that asylum seekers who arrive by boat will have no chance of being resettled in Australia but will instead be sent to Papua New Guinea – is still sinking in.
PNG remains an unknown entity to the ethnic Hazara asylum seekers living here, but to some that is inconsequential. “It takes a lot of time for us to process our cases here, so now I am compelled. I don’t have any other choice but to take a boat to Australia,” says Mohammed Ali.
The shellshocked 32-year-old arrived in Indonesia 20 days ago after he fortuitously escaped a blast in his hometown of Quetta, Pakistan. Like thousands before him he is in Puncak, where asylum seekers invariably end up as they wait for a boat or the years it normally takes to be granted refugee status by the United Nations high commissioner forrefugees (UNHCR).
Between a baseball cap and the “Just Do It” slogan printed on his T-shirt, a look of desperation is fixed on his face. “In Quetta, every day there is a blast, an attack. At night we cannot sleep and during the day we cannot work,” he says. “We don’t have peace and we don’t know what time we will be attacked.”
More than 200 Hazaras have been killed this year in the city by bomb blasts carried out by Sunni extremists. Ali knows he could also die taking a boat to Australia, but life in PNG, he says, is better than being killed in Pakistan.
Some 15,000 people have arrived by boat to Australia this year, and over recent years hundreds have died making the journey.
Sayed Kamaluddin Mousani, 28, one of the six Hazara asylum seekers that share the mattresses on the floor in the Puncak house, says he is confused about policy but he would still take a boat if he could.
The shaggy-haired English teacher from Mazar-i-Sharif, north Afghanistan, fled to Iran after discovering his picture was on a Taliban hit list for teaching an “evil language”. Five months ago he also fled Iran after he was threatened because his older brother works for the BBC’s Persian TV service, a news agency that he was told is “against the Iranian government”.
He has registered with the UNHCR but if he gets the US$5,000 (A$5,430) to pay for a boat he will, even though his mother is begging him not to.
“Most of the time when my mother is speaking to me she says, ‘My dear, don’t go to the ocean. I am your mother, what would happen to you?’ But I think staying here is very difficult,” says Mousani. “When I get the money I will speak to a people smuggler and I will put the money in front of him.”
Down a dark alleyway off the main road, the Hazaras share small, sparse lodgings and tea as they discuss their fate. There are questions and confusion and perhaps optimistic disbelief.
Those that have been here long enough and have followed the twists and turns of Australia’s immigration policy are sceptical the PNG deal is for real this time.
Mohammad Ali Babu, 47, was in detention in Surabaya, Java, when former prime minister Julia Gillard first announced that asylum seekers would be processed in East Timor and then in Malaysia.
“Then, when I was here [in Puncak], Australia announced that asylum seekers will be shifted to Nauru,” he says, “but all their policies are in vain. They didn’t implement it, and they didn’t act upon them.”
Babu, the eldest of the beleaguered Hazara group, says he made a mistake by choosing not to get on a boat after the Nauru announcement.
Asylum seekers he knows have since been through the offshore processing centre and are now resettled in Australia.
Besides Mohammed Ali and Mousani, the other men have all taken shoddy and overloaded boats that capsized, been caught by the authorities and escaped detention – all multiple times. Even before Rudd announced his new policy they had decided to take the legitimate route.
But applying for refugee status with the UNHCR means resigning yourself to living in protracted limbo, sometimes for years.
Kamran Ali, an articulate and fresh-faced 25-year-old who worked for the US army as an interpreter in Afghanistan, waited one year just to get an interview with the UNHCR in Jakarta.
Like the others, Kamran Ali doesn’t know how long it will take to process his case. Even those that have been granted refugee status continue to wait, with no housing or financial support.
Babu, for example, was granted refugee status one year ago but was denied asylum in Australia because “he didn’t fit the criteria”. He believes it is because he is too old.
Now he is waiting to see if the US will accept him.
Of those that have registered with the UNHCR, they all say that if takes too long they might be forced to take a boat. While they wait for word from the UN body they cannot work or study and they can’t afford to stay here indefinitely.
“The process for resettlement in America will take too long,” says Babu. “I don’t have money to survive here and I have been attacked by Indonesian extremists four times. So my survival here is in danger.”
Attacks against the Hazaras in Puncak are also on the rise and most asylum seekers stay in at night to avoid trouble. The International Organisation for Migration is reportedly moving its office and temporary housing in the area due to the rising tensions.
But even during the days of mounting hopelessness, Kamran Ali says he does not regret leaving Quetta where “people have been killed like animals” in front of his eyes.
The 25-year-old says that if the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not improve, asylum seekers will continue to come. Another boat left Indonesia on Sunday morning, he says, and in Pakistan, the persecuted Hazaras are willing to travel and take the risk.
After an arduous journey, usually through Thailand and the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia, they may end up in Puncak wiling away the time, bemoaning the UNHCR and listless days, playing soccer, and swapping stories of ingenious detention escapes.
Alihan Haidary, a 20-year-old Afghani, for example, likes to show newcomers the photo of the 25-metre-long hole he dug with a spoon to escape from a detention centre in Manado, Sulawesi.
English teacher Mousani says he has also been reading, and re-reading the few books he has.
The last book he finished was on René Descartes’ philosophy and he has an interesting take on the key message. Rather than “I think therefore I am”, in Mousani’s mind it is, “I think, therefore I am alive.”
On 21 June (the date has been rectified here) 2012 a boat carrying refugees on the 6,000-mile journey from Pakistan to Australia sank with the loss of 94 lives. The Guardian spoke to the survivors and tells the story of international criminal networks and a web of corruption across the far east. Their accounts reveal the plight of desperate refugees forced to pay exorbitant sums.
Refugees rescued by the JPO Vulpecula
There was almost no warning. The boat had stopped about 10 minutes earlier. Since then it had rocked gently in the swell, settling lower in the water. Its Indonesian crew shouted to one another, increasingly agitated.
On the roof of the open wooden outsize fishing boat, Mohammed Ishaq was shaken awake by another refugee. “Get up, the boat is sinking,” he was told. But even as he stood, the 31-year-old Afghan-born Pakistani felt the deck tilting sharply under his feet. He slid, fell and hit the water.
It was 24 June 2012. The boat was 107 nautical miles from the nearest land. Of the 204 refugees aboard, almost all from Afghanistan or Pakistan, 94 would die.
It was one of the worst of the growing number of sinkings involving illegal immigrants attempting the 6,000-mile journey to Australia from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Only now can the full story be told.
On one level it involves thousands of men, women and children, transnational criminal networks, tens of millions of dollars and a corroding web of corruption across the far east and further afield. On another, it means hundreds of drowned fathers, brothers, sons, daughters, mothers and babies, and thousands of bereaved relatives.
Only a week before Ishaq was plunged into the water, 93 died when another boat making its way to Christmas Island had sunk. There have been many more shipwrecks since, Afghan community representatives in Australia say, in which around 300 men, women and children have drowned. There are others which go unreported. Up to 600 have died in the past two or three years, they say, though they point out that the true figure is impossible to know.
This summer thousands more will attempt the perilous journey.
Officials from the governments of Pakistan, from where most of the refugees come, and of Indonesia, through which most of the refugees transit, privately admit they cannot stem the flow. Australia is trying to discourage prospective asylum seekers with new laws, offshore processing centres and with offers to take more refugees who choose to enter the country legally. But such measures appear to have little impact. The only barriers currently are natural – not man-made.
Ishaq’s story is typical. The 31-year-old comes from the seething Pakistani port city of Karachi, where his family have lived since emigrating from a rural area of central Afghanistan 25 years ago. He grew up in the middle class Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighbourhood, happy to be away from his turbulant homeland. Years in school and college passed without incident. Then, shortly after his marriage, security in the city began to deteriorate rapidly. Ishaq became a target.
Like most of the refugees with him on the boat, Ishaq was a Hazara, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan and Pakistan whose distinctive features and devotion to the Shia strand of Islam in countries dominated by Sunni Muslims has long meant marginalisation. But in Karachi, and the western city of Quetta where a large Hazara community is based, discrimination has turned deadly.
In both cities squads of Sunni militants have begun attacking Shias, and particulary Hazaras. The violence has intensified each month. Two of Ishaq’s relatives were shot, one paralysed from the waist down. Ishaq himself received threats. In late 2011, he decided, reluctantly, he had to leave. “Of course I didn’t want to go. I had my family, my wife, my business [a corner shop]. But I had no choice,” he told the Guardian.
Ishaq chose Australia because it was the “only country” he knew “that was accepting refugees”. Getting to western Europe was too dangerous. Other states in the region did not offer asylum. In Australia, Ishaq knew too he would find friends and relatives amid the growing Hazara community.
Friends in Quetta put Ishaq in touch with “people” who could organise his trip. He would pay in instalments, with $4,000 paid up front to reach Malaysia and then another $3,000 to get from there to Indonesia. He said goodbye to his parents and wife and left in the first week of 2012, on a plane to Kuala Lumpur. That year, 320 Shia Muslims were killed in Pakistan.
Ali Hasaan Kaka
In Quetta itself, another family was bracing itself for separation. Ali Hasaan Kaka, a 38-year-old bank clerk with a love for Hazaran cooking and practical jokes, and his 32-year-old cousin, Imran, were spending a last evening at dinner with their extended family, his sister in law remembers. The pair had paid $14,000 to an agent for the trip. “We all ate together and chatted a lot about what future may hold for us. Ali hoped that after a few month in Australia, all of us will go there. My sister was scared at his idea of leaving Pakistan in such a risky manner but encouraged him to go in search of greener pastures,” she told the Guardian.
To the north, high on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, dozens of other young men were also preparing to depart for Australia. They too were Hazaras, living in Parachinar, a remote, rough town in the volatile semi-autonomous tribal agency of Kurram. Here too sectarian violence was intense. A report by the Pakistani federal investigation agency seen by the Guardian, describes a meeting in September 2011. Five men from Kurram travelled to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, for a meeting with an agent. Between then and January 2012, the men paid a total of over $90,000 to the agent for sending 10 of their sons, cousins and brothers to Australia “for work”. One was Abdul Aziz, a 45-year-old illiterate labourer and father of five.
“Seeing the persecution of Shias in our city, he borrowed $10,000 and left for Thailand en route to Australia,” his brother-in-law said in a telephone interview from Parachinar.
The agent, investigators in Pakistan say, ran the westernmost end of a massive operation with contacts all the way to Australia. They called it the Tajir Travel Agency, after the shop in the frontier city of Peshawar which acted as a front office for the network.
Malaysia to Indonesia
When Ishaq arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport he bought a sim card and called a number he had been given by traffickers in Karachi. Within an hour, a Malaysian man linked, according to the Pakistani report, to the Tajir Travel Agency, had picked him up. The agency’s key operator here was from the Pashtun tribes along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, the Pakistani investigators say. After a night alone in a house in the Malaysian capital, Ishaq was joined by a dozen other Hazaras who had followed an identical path.
Back home, his family paid another $3,000 to their contact and a week later, the group were driven to a beach three hours from Kuala Lumpur. They boarded a boat and, after four hours on calm seas at night, landed in Indonesia. Taken to an airport, they then flew to Jakarta. With no visas, they went underground in a private home in the city of Bogor nearby.
Ishaq’s parents had trouble finding the $5,000 needed for onward travel. He stayed in the house for five months, sleeping with up to a dozen others in two rented rooms.
Eventually, after five months, his family wired the dollars. Then his contact with the network called. Get to a shopping centre in Jakarta, she said. At the mall, dozens of other young Afghan and Pakistani men were waiting. Another call directed him to take a taxi to a new address – a bus stand. Four coaches were loaded with 200 young Afghan men and driven into the night.
Among the refugees on the buses that night were Ali Hasaan Kaka, the former banker who had left Quetta to seek “greener pastures” two months earlier, and his cousin. Kaka had made a final call home. “He spoke to my sister from Indonesia, saying, ‘Please don’t be worried if my phone does not work as we will be leaving for Australia very soon.’ We all were nervous and happy at the same time,” his sister-in-law remembered
The fact that a convoy carrying 200 or more men without visas could drive across the crowded centre of Java even at night indicates that local security forces had been paid off, said one western official based in Indonesia.
The man organising the onward travel of Ishaq and the others, according to evidence heard in an Indonesian court, was Dawood Amiri, an ethnic Hazara who, like his clients, had fled Pakistan and come to Indonesia hoping to cross to Australia before being detained a year before. On his release, prosecutors said, he had become a significant “second-rank” player in the trafficking business and had organised three previous sailings, without incident. He was the local representative of the Tajir Travel Agency.
Western investigators working on trafficking say that such “franchises” are common. Refugees heading from Asia to Europe are passed from network to network, each a separate organisation. But in the far east the networks are more integrated, acting as a “courier system” through which “packages” – people – can be moved along chains of trusted intermediaries. In each location, local representatives develop the relationships with the authorities that are needed to smooth the way.
Though much larger sums went to higher officials to allow entry of refugees at airports or in return for information about planned anti-trafficking operations, Amiri told investigators, each police checkpoint on the 150-mile drive across Java required a bribe of $200 or more.
With local authorities take care of, the refugees reached a beach on the south coast of Java at around midnight. There were smaller boats waiting to take them to a larger vessel, miles offshore. As they approached the boat that was supposed to take them to Christmas Island, Ishaq knew that his worst fears had been realised.
“There were men everywhere, all over the deck, shouting to us to go back, that there was no space, that the boat would sink, that we would drown,” he remembered. “I was terrified. But how could we go back?”
Pushed aboard by the press of men behind him, he fought his way through the crowd and grabbed one of the last life jackets. “The old and the weak were pushed aside,” he remembered. The traffickers had taken his mobile phone. He had just his clothes, passport, wallet and a few hundred dollars.
At dawn, the ship got under way. The refugees saw a few fishing boats. Then nothing. The few bottles of water, supply of tinned cheese and bags of dry noodles on board were grossly inadequate for 200 men for a five or six-day journey.
One of the refugees on the boat was Abdul Aziz, the Parachinar labourer with five children. After three days at sea, he used the crew’s single satellite phone, to call home.
“He spoke to us from the boat on 21 June,” his brother-in-law said. “He said, ‘We are leaving for Australia and I will call you from there.’ When he spoke to his only daughter, then six years old, he promised to bring her dolls and clothes.”
But that night a crew member fell asleep and allowed the engine and the pumps to run out of fuel. The hold of the leaky, overburdened boat rapidly filled with water.
“It happened very fast. The boat just capsized. Everyone went in the water. People were very scared and shouting, trying to grab each other, fighting and sinking and pulling each other down,” Ishaq said.
It was around 2am and very dark. There were no life rafts, and only half the refugees had managed to grab one of the worn-out life belts heaped in the boat’s hold.
Though 30 or 40 people managed to clamber on to the hull, the rest were left in the waves. Almost none could swim. Ishaq, treading water, tightened the strings on his own life jacket as a current drew him away.
“I thank God there were no women or children on the boat, just young men and teenagers,” he said.
After a few hours, the strings on his lifejacket parted. He held it with one hand and swam with the other. Bodies floated on the water. Men shouted to each other, then their voices faded as they sank beneath the waves. “We prayed and cried and tried to encourage each other. They died before my eyes. My own hopes were fading,” he said.
After nearly 24 hours in the water, a plane flew low overhead, but dropped a raft full of supplies too far away for the exhausted refugees. A second aircraft dropped an inflatable tube. Ishaq hung on to it. An hour later an Australian naval vessel picked up survivors and took them Christmas Island.
“I was looking for my friends but there were so few of us. So many had drowned,” he said. Among them was the food-loving banker Ali Hasaan Kaka, his cousin, and Ali Abdul Aziz, the labourer from Parachinar.
A week later, another boat would sink, this time with the loss of about 65 asylum-seekers. During the last days of August, about 100 heading to Christmas Island may have drowned in two incidents. Other boats have simply disappeared. More than 200 died in March when another vessel sank, according to reports in Pakistan. Last month news reached Quetta and Parachinar of another shipwreck in which about 60 died.
The only good news is that the Tajir Travel Agency network has been wound up. One member, a Pakistani policeman, was arrested in Quetta. Four others were picked up a genteel neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad last month. They confessed to receiving £700,000 from their clients. Investigators told the Guardian this figure was a fraction of the total.
Two other members of the network were detained in Indonesia. One, Dawood Amiri, who organised the 21 June sailing, was sentenced in February to six years in prison. When he was arrested 84 mobile phones were found in his possession, taken from the refugees.
Kaka’s family learned about the shipwreck from local newspapers. “None of us believed it initially. Now that we … don’t talk about it within the family,” Kaka’s sister-in-law said. “His fiancee, my sister, has been extremely depressed but is now improving a bit. My father has now understood that Kaka is gone but won’t talk to anyone about him at all.”
The consequences for Abdul Aziz’s large family have been severe. With the only wage earner gone, his eldest son had left school and works in a bakery. His house is to be sold to pay off debts.
“We have no plan for life ahead,” said Abdul Hussein, his brother in law, “I cannot look in the eyes of my sister, even now a year after he left. I don’t blame him. My own 16 year old son was shot dead in a sectarian killing shortly after Abdul Aziz was drowned.”
Ishaq, the survivor, is unsure what advice he would give to those planning their own bid to reach Australia. “If your life is safe and you have a choice then don’t do it, it isn’t worth the risk,” Ishaq said. “But if you have no alternative …”
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