September 12, 2014 | Al Jazeera
Australia’s tough policies have not stopped Pakistan’s asylum seekers from making the journey in search of a new life.
More than 80,000 Hazaras have fled Pakistan, and Australia was a popular destination until 2013 [Reuters]
|Zakir Hussain and Syed Jawad Hussain, not related to each other, were on their way to the graveyard during Eid in August when motorcyclists shot them at point-blank range in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, killing them instantly.
A police investigation was launched but no one has yet been arrested despite the perpetrators claiming responsibility for the attack. The government has failed to stop attacks on the minority Shia Hazaras, over 1,000 of whom have been killed in the last decade.
As news of the killings reached Dawood – now based in Australia – he was overcome with a familiar sense of guilt that engulfs him every time a Hazara life is cut short in the town that he fled in 2012.
In a phone interview with Al Jazeera from western Australia, Dawood recalled the first time he felt this way – at the detention centre in the Australian territory of Christmas Island – when he called his home and could hear people crying.
His wife told him: “It’s just some guests,” but he had been to too many funerals and knew better.
He scanned Hazara social media pages and saw photos of dead Shia pilgrims who had been attacked by the banned armed group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
“I called home again and when they told that my chacha [uncle] was among the dead, I hated myself,” Dawood told Al Jazeera.
“I was so angry with myself for choosing this [refugee] life. I wish it had been him on the boat to Australia and me on the bus [that was attacked].”
More than 80,000 Hazaras have fled Pakistan in the past decade and while Sri Lanka, Europe, and North America are options, activists say Australia was the most popular destination until 2013.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, “We Are the Walking Dead,” the Hazara community in Pakistan is estimated to be around 500,000.
Had Dawood not taken the stinking, overloaded boat to Christmas Island, he would not have been able to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer.
“I had just finished high school and was ready to enrol at a local university when my father stopped me as the security situation in Quetta had worsened.”
Coming from an educated middle class family, it was not easy for Dawood to give up so he applied to universities in Australia, confident that good grades would secure him a place.
However, the Australian High Commission rejected his visa application which, he said, left him with no choice but to “take the illegal route”.
Several groups of “people smugglers” operate networks across Asia, and Dawood used one based in Quetta to make his journey.
Handing over a fortune to fixers and airport officials, refugees travel across the Southeast Asia via sea and air.
Reaching Indonesia is the first hurdle, where sources in the capital, Jakarta, told Al Jazeera that there are almost 2,500 Pakistani asylum seekers – over 75 percent of whom are Shia Hazaras.
Refugees register with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and those seeking shelter are cared for by aid agencies while others such as Dawood – who had already paid $11,500 to the smugglers – find temporary accommodation.
Four months later, in September 2012, Dawood left Bogor on the Indonesian island of Java, in the middle of the night with 140 others for the journey by sea that has claimed at least 1,500 lives in the last decade.
Ali – who witnessed countless attacks on Hazaras – fled Pakistan for a similar reason. He was forced to change his route to work every day until he gave up last year, closed his jewellery business in Quetta, left his house and took his family to Indonesia in 2010.
“Our enemies can pick us out [on the basis of distinct physical features],” Ali, who requested only his first name be used, told Al Jazeera from Jakarta.
“We can’t tell which motorcyclist has a gun, who among the crowd is a suicide bomber, or where our vehicles will be blown into pieces.”
Such desperate attempts to reach Australia came to an abrupt halt last year after Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, launched “Operation Sovereign Borders”.
After winning the elections on the back of a strong anti-immigration campaign, Abbott was quick to seal his country’s borders to immigrants arriving by the sea.
Stories of boats being turned back close to Christmas Island, Australian navy officials torturing asylum seekers, and the government offering cash incentives to those in detention centres to return home quickly brought the boat journeys to a stop.
Hussain, who arrived in Australia before the operation was launched, had been on the verge of obtaining a permanent visa when he was again put behind the electrified barbed wire of the Curtin Detention Centre on the mainland.
A former trader at the Quetta Liaquat Bazar, he had confronted the daily threat of death before fleeing Pakistan.
The clampdown has plunged him into uncertainty that will continue until Australia’s government decides what to do with him – and thousands like him.
Criticism from refugee agencies, including the UNHCR, has done little to move ministers even though Australia is a signatory to the UN refugee convention.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has defended the controversial programme, and his office refused Al Jazeera’s request for a comment on why his government is closing its borders on a persecuted community.
Stress of uncertainty
While the policy may not be deterring Pakistanis from seeking asylum, many languish in a state of limbo as they await a decision on their cases.
Once registered with the UNHCR, individuals spend months in aid centres awaiting progress, where some suffer mental illness amid the stress of uncertainty.
“Australia refusing refugees arriving by sea has not reduced the number of people fleeing Pakistan,” Ali said. Six months on, his family’s future remains undetermined.
“People are still coming, hoping that UNHCR will help them find a new home.”
Dawood did manage to live his dream and study engineering, but he was attacked while he was on a vacation in Pakistan in 2013.
He had travelled home to see his family, and a week before returning to Perth gunmen shot at him on his way to market, paralysing one arm.
Meanwhile, a recent online anti-immigration campaign in Australia leaves asylum seekers such as him in no doubt that they are not welcome in their adopted home either.
It might not carry the same threat as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s anti-Shia literature, but the message to this shrinking community is clear: They have no place left to call home