February 13, 2014
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.