June 2011


Hazara asylum seekers

By Sally Neighbour
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Yusuf Hamid was a shoemaker in the village of Kharaba in Ghazni Province, eastern Afghanistan. It was the time of the Taliban, as Afghans invariably refer to the years between 1996 and 2001 when the bearded talib, students from the Islamic madrassas strung along the Afghan–Pakistan border, imposed their draconian brand of Islamic law on Afghanistan.

Hamid (not his real name) is a member of the minority Hazara, reviled by the Pashtun Taliban for their ethnicity and their adherence to the Shia creed of Islam, regarded by Sunni zealots as heretical. After coming to power, a Taliban commander had announced: “The policy of the Taliban is to exterminate the Hazaras.” A Taliban governor decreed, “Hazaras are not Muslim. You can kill them. It is not a sin.” The wholesale slaughter of Hazara communities followed. As many as 8000 people were killed in what diplomats called a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing when the Taliban took the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998. Many more such deaths followed. Hazara groups estimate 15,000 of their people died in orchestrated killings under the Taliban. Many thousands more were forced to flee their homes.

Yusuf Hamid was among them.

His escape from Afghanistan marked the beginning of a ten year odyssey that saw him take to the seas in a rickety Indonesian fishing boat bound for Australia, not once but twice: first in 2001 and again last year, having failed the first time. His journey has taken him to Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Christmas Island, Nauru – under the Howard government’s ‘Pacific Solution’ – and finally to the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in remote far north Western Australia, where he is presently incarcerated.

His claim for asylum rejected by the Australian government, Hamid – along with hundreds of his countrymen – is facing forced repatriation to Afghanistan, which may occur any day.

“We cannot go back to Afghanistan because the situation is very worse for us because of the Taliban,” Hamid says, speaking by phone from the Curtin. Hamid is polite and articulate, but his voice betrays a prevailing desperation among the Afghan detainees. On 28 March a 20-year-old Hazara man, Mohammed Asif Atay, committed suicide in his room at Curtin – hanged by a bedsheet, according to fellow inmates. Two weeks earlier another Afghan, Miqdad Hussain, also aged about 20, killed himself in the same way at the Scherger Immigration Detention Centre in north Queensland. In April a third Afghan threw himself through a plate-glass window at Curtin, but survived. Refugee advocates are worried more will follow suit. A Hazara detainee named Taqi, who also spoke by phone from Curtin, told me: “If they want to send me back I try to hang myself, kill myself. I can’t live there.”

Of the many vexed issues that confront the Gillard government in the polarised debate over asylum seekers, none is more pressing than the fate of the Afghans, who outnumber all other nationalities in Australia’s crowded immigration detention centres.

Afghans make up almost half of the 10,500 or so asylum seekers who have washed up on Australia’s shores (according to figures from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship) since the spike in boat arrivals began in 2009. Almost all the Afghans are Hazaras. The persecution of Hazaras and the perils in their homeland are so well documented that, until recently, more than 95% of the Afghans who sought asylum got it. That was before the current crackdown, which is aimed at cutting detention centre numbers and signalling that the welcome mat has been withdrawn.

Between 700 and 900 Afghans have had their claims rejected and could face deportation, according to Hassan Varasi from the Hazara Foundation. (DIAC will not release the numbers, a spokesman saying, “we don’t give out those figures.”) Varasi says: “The Immigration Department is pressuring every one of them to go back to Afghanistan, [telling them] ‘there’s no hope for you, you have to go back.’”

Yusuf Hamid arrived in Australia in late 2001 amid a hysterical public debate over a surge in boat arrivals. In August that year, ahead of a highly charged election, the Howard government had refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa to enter Australian waters carrying 438 Afghans rescued from a foundering fishing boat. In October asylum seekers on another sinking boat had been wrongly accused of throwing their children overboard.

Then, as now, there was little public sympathy for ‘queue jumpers’ such as Hamid. He was shipped to Nauru and detained there for about a year before being deported back to Afghanistan in 2003. By this time the Taliban had been ousted and the US-backed Hamid Karzai installed as interim president pending democratic elections. But already the Taliban was re-grouping and preparing its comeback.

As Hamid soon learned, Taliban commanders in his native Ghazni Province were bent on revenge against those they branded traitors. “The Taliban were looking for those guys who returned from Australia. They thought that those people who returned from Australia were working with the foreigners.” A month after returning to his village, Hamid says he was captured by a Taliban posse, beaten unconscious and left for dead.

The Edmund Rice Centre, a Catholic advocacy group, has tracked the fortunes of some 270 rejected asylum seekers in 22 countries, and documented several cases of Afghans hunted down and killed after their return. One case reported by the centre’s director, Phil Glendenning, is that of Mohammed Hussain, a Hazara and former mujahideen fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, who fled Afghanistan under Taliban rule. After being refused refugee status in Australia, Hussain went back to his village in Ghazni – the same province that Hamid comes from and faces returning to. There, in late 2008, Hussain was cornered by a Taliban gang and thrown down a well in front of 35 members of his family. A grenade was thrown down after him, decapitating him. Glendenning, who met Hussain in Kabul before he died, says, “He had told people this would happen if he was sent back [to Afghanistan].”

In another case cited by Glendenning, a Hazara man named Abdul Azim, who spent 18 months on Nauru before being deported, saw his six– and nine-year-old daughters killed in a grenade attack on their home in Afghanistan.

Yusuf Hamid may well have met a similar fate but, on the night he was grabbed, he regained consciousness while his captors were praying and managed to escape. He fled Afghanistan again, travelling to Pakistan and Iran, where he lived for two years before being caught and deported as an illegal immigrant. Back in Pakistan he found a people smuggler and spent all of his savings – US$13,000, which he had earned while working illegally in Iran – to be spirited through Singapore, Jakarta, Kupang in West Timor, and finally to Christmas Island, where the vessel he was on washed up in April last year.

As fate would have it, Hamid’s boat sailed into a new political storm over a fresh spike in so-called “irregular maritime arrivals”. A record 134 boats carrying 6879 people arrived last year, according to figures compiled by the Australian Parliamentary Library. Almost 3000 of them were Afghans. It’s little wonder. The United Nations says 2010 was the deadliest year in the decade-long Afghan conflict with a record 2412 civilians killed. The number of Afghans seeking asylum worldwide jumped by 45% to almost 27,000.

Also among those who arrived in Australia was 28-year-old Taqi, a father of four who had fled his village in the province of Bamiyan. He says he was lucky to get out alive after escaping from the jail where he’d been held without charge as a political prisoner for four years. In the murky internecine world of Afghan politics, Taqi says his tormentors were not the Taliban but the local leaders of a major political party, Hezb-e-Wahdat, which targeted his family and killed his father because of their involvement in a rival party, Shura-i-Itifaq, which was once aligned with the Taliban.

In an email sent via an intermediary from the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, Taqi told me: “I was physically tortured as well as being woken continuously, and by having to stay in a cell with water on the floor. I was tortured for most of the first year. I remained imprisoned for four years [without] any charges.”

Eventually he escaped and made his way from Kabul to Dubai, Malaysia and Indonesia, where he bought a one-way ticket to Australia on a smuggler’s boat.

Taqi arrived on Christmas Island on or around 23 May 2010. Yusuf Hamid’s boat had landed the month before. Their timing could not have been worse.

The then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had just announced a six month freeze on the processing of all new Afghan asylum claims. Hamid, Taqi and hundreds of others were stuck in limbo until the freeze was lifted last October. According to the Hazara Foundation’s Hassan Varasi – again, the government won’t release the figures – 85% of Afghans who arrived during that six month period have had their claims rejected, compared to a 95% acceptance rate before that. “Nothing makes sense, but this is the reality,” says Varasi. “It’s based on [the policy of] the time and conditions in Australia, not on the ground in Afghanistan.”

Hamid was rejected because the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade judges that Hazaras are now safe in Afghanistan. A DFAT directive from February last year, which is relied upon for refugee assessments, states: “Hazaras do not live in fear of violence or systemic persecution as they did under [the] Taliban.” It cites UNHCR guidelines from 2009 that advised, “Hazaras were not being persecuted on any consistent basis,” although it added, “the current situation where Hazaras enjoyed freedom from fear of persecution might not last indefinitely.”

Taqi, too, was rejected on the grounds that Hazaras no longer have “a well-founded fear of persecution”, as required under the UN Refugee Convention. The immigration officer who assessed him also dismissed his claims of political persecution, judging that his evidence on this was “vague, lacking in detail and inconsistent”.

Hassan Varasi, himself a former refugee who also came from Bamiyan province and knew Taqi’s father, says the DIAC assessment suggests the officer who wrote it was not well informed about the political situation on the ground in central Afghanistan. However, the arcane intricacies of Afghan politics are of little interest to a federal government bogged down in a base political quarrel over demands that it ‘stop the boats’. The spectre of detention centres ablaze and detainees protesting on their rooftops hasn’t helped.

In January, the government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Kabul, allowing for its citizens’ involuntary repatriation. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen hailed it “the most comprehensive agreement on these matters” ever reached between the two countries. But an official who was privy to the negotiations told me the Afghan government “had very, very little say” in the MoU, and Afghan officials are privately worried about the fate awaiting involuntary returnees. “The way they get treated back home in Afghanistan is a disgrace. It’s a big embarrassment. If it’s found they tried to escape, they could be killed,” the official said.

Australia’s pre-eminent expert on Afghanistan, Professor William Maley, director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University, agrees that Hazaras face grave peril if they are forced to return. In fact, he told me, “I think the targeting of returnees is more likely now than was the case in 2008.” Professor Maley says Hazaras are desperate because of a pervasive fear that the Taliban will retake power after the coalition forces leave, and Afghanistan will return to “the dark days”.

The Gillard government faces a stark choice: err on the side of compassion, and deal with the inevitable accusations of having gone ‘soft’ on boat people; or press on with the promised ‘tough’ approach, and quite possibly end up with the blood of Afghans on its hands. Taqi says: “If I go back to Afghanistan they kill me there. If I kill myself here, is better.”

Sally Neighbour
Sally Neighbour is a multiple award-winning journalist and author, best known for her work as a reporter with Four Corners, recognised by three Walkley Awards. She is the author of The Mother of Mohammed and In the Shadow of Swords.

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