EARLIER on the day I started writing this article my friend Nafisa and I drove by taxi through Kabul. It was the beginning of Eid, the three days of celebration that mark the end of Ramadan, and in the streets the people in their bright new clothes contrasted with the dusty roads and debilitated buildings. Among piles of rubbish and rubble, boys chased one another with the toy guns they’d bought with their Eid money. At one point a plastic yellow bullet flew through the open window of our taxi, and when we arrived at Nafisa’s home her seven-year-old son greeted us armed with a plastic Kalashnikov about half his height, complete with a detachable dagger.
After thirty years of conflict it’s not surprising that war has its grip even on the minds of small children. The duration of the turmoil, and its intensification in late 2001, means that the forced movement of Afghans – both within the country and to neighbouring countries and beyond – has also become commonplace, and is now among the largest anywhere in the world. Under the Taliban alone, an estimated six million people were displaced from their homes; it was towards the end of that period, in 1999, that most Australians first became aware of Afghan refugees when they began arriving off our coast in unseaworthy boats.
Most of those asylum seekers were Hazaras, an Afghan ethnic group concentrated in an area of central Afghanistan known as Hazarajat. Unlike Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks, who mainly follow Sunni Islam, most Hazaras practise Shiite Islam. It was for this reason that they were persecuted by the Taliban.
But Hazaras had been victims of violence long before they began to seek refuge in Australia. When Abdul Rahman Khan ruled Afghanistan in the 1880s and 1890s he ordered a war against the Hazara “infidels.” According to Niamatullah Ibrahimi, a researcher in the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics, Abdul Rahman’s records reveal that some Hazara tribes lost between 60 and 90 per cent of their population and others totally disappeared. Over half of the total Hazara population was slaughtered, and others were enslaved or forced to pay exorbitant taxes.
Although many Australians won’t be aware of the history of Hazaras and Abdul Rahman Khan, nearly everyone has heard of the Taliban. Influenced by a perverted version of the “Deobandi” school of religious belief, many Taliban saw Hazaras as infidels who deserved to die unless they converted to Sunni Islam. Many Hazaras were imprisoned and tortured, and others were slaughtered during mass killings such as those in Mazar-e Sharif in August 1998 and Yakaolang in January 2001.
Among the countries to which the Hazaras fled for protection was Australia. But rather than responding generously, the Howard government institutionalised harsh measures. Many Hazaras were incarcerated in detention camps for two or more years, only to find themselves given just temporary protections visas on their release. Three events – the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the Howard government’s response to the Tampa, and the mass drowning of refugees on the boat known as SIEV-X – helped bring to an end the arrival of Hazaras.
When boat people once again began arriving in Australian territory two years ago, the asylum seeker debate was reignited. Of the relatively small numbers intercepted by the Australian navy and brought to Christmas Island, the majority were either Hazara Afghans or Tamil Sri Lankans. Many of the Afghans were fleeing from Ghazni province, where the Taliban had established effective control of the non-Hazara districts in 2008. With the central government’s hold limited to the provincial centre, Hazara residents and travellers through the province were vulnerable to Taliban intimidation and kidnapping. Other Afghans who fled to Australia had been living in the Quetta district of north-west Pakistan, which had been a place of refuge for Hazaras.
Combined with the more humane policy of the Rudd government, the change in conditions resulted in a renewed flow of asylum seekers to Australia. Refugee and human rights advocates were watching closely to see how the government would treat these newest boat people, especially in light of the government’s “new detention values” – which “emphasise[d] a risk-based approach to detention and prompt resolution of cases rather than punishment,” according to the immigration minister, Chris Evans – and its decision to begin using Christmas Island’s $500 million maximum-security detention centre.
When the first of these boats began arriving I was on Christmas Island. At first, there was a remarkable improvement in the treatment of asylum seekers. They were processed within approximately 120 days and released into community detention after two months or so. As a result, most asylum seekers had memorable and positive experiences on Christmas Island. When I visited a group of Hazara refugees who had resettled in Adelaide, they were eager for news. “How are the people of Christmas Island?” was a typical question. “How much does it cost to fly to the island because when our families come to Australia, we want to take them there?” asked one former detainee.
Nearly two years later, it is unlikely that the current group of detainees will remember Christmas Island with the same affection. The facilities are overcrowded and incidents of self-harm and other protests have increased. The overcrowding intensified after the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, or DIAC, announced in April that processing of Afghan asylum claims would be suspended for six months and Sri Lankan claims for three months. Any people from these countries who were intercepted by the navy or arrived in Australian territory after 9 April 2010 were warned to expect delays in the processing of their asylum applications. The immigration minister warned that “evolving conditions” in their homelands meant that more asylum claims from Sri Lankans and Afghans would be refused. Referring specifically to Afghanistan, he added, “The Taliban’s fall, durable security in parts of the country, and constitutional and legal reform to protect minorities' rights have improved the circumstances of Afghanistan’s minorities, including Afghan Hazaras.”
The announcement was criticised by refugee advocates, academics and lawyers. Contrary to the government’s statement, the UNHCR had not changed its guidelines for assessing Afghan asylum claims, nor had it been consulted prior to the introduction of the new arrangements. The Australian National University’s Professor William Maley, an internationally recognised expert on Afghanistan, described to me the government’s depiction of the improved conditions for Hazaras in Afghanistan as “surreal.”
On the day of the announcement, DIAC officials told the detainees already on Christmas Island that their applications would not be affected. Nevertheless, anxiety was widespread when I visited the detention centre that day. Detainees quizzed me about why the Australian government would think that Afghanistan was suddenly safe for Hazaras. Did the Rudd government really think that the security situation had improved overnight or was this just a political game to reassure Australians that it was in control of the borders?
They did have reason to be anxious. Not long after, the treatment of the asylum claims by Afghan detainees began to change. Previously, being “Hazara” and “Shia” had been valid grounds for claiming refugee status in Australia, and the majority of Hazara asylum seekers had been successful in their claims. But now an increasing number of Hazaras were failing their refugee status assessments. In July UNHCR asked the department why there had been a dramatic fall in the proportion of successful Afghan claims (prior to appeals before the Independent Merit Review) compared to the previous year – down from nearly 100 per cent approval to below 30 per cent – given that the UNHCR’s guidelines remained unchanged.
NOTHING can prepare you for the culture shock of arriving for the first time in Afghanistan. In July this year I flew from Christmas Island to Kabul, leaving a remote island with a permanent population of 1300 (and 2500 detainees) for a chaotic, war-torn city with around 2.8 million people, run-down infrastructure and a strong sense of insecurity.
According to one researcher who makes the dangerous journey by road to Bamyan and Ghazni to interview Hazaras about their fears and intentions, the majority feel that the dangers within Afghanistan have worsened. Asked to give their primary reason for wishing to leave the country, it’s the security situation that is mentioned most often. This is not surprising: in a report on Afghanistan published in March, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said that security has continued to deteriorate in Afghanistan, “with 2009 being the most volatile year since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.” Three months later, the mid-year report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan described a further increase in violence:
The human cost of the armed conflict in Afghanistan is escalating in 2010. In the first six months of the year civilian casualties – including deaths and injuries of civilians – increased by 31 per cent over the same period in 2009…
As civilian casualties rose in the first half of 2010, women and children made up a greater proportion of those killed and injured than in 2009. Women and children experienced an extreme lack of protection in conflict-affected areas along with widespread violation of their basic human rights.
Referring specifically to the situation of Hazaras, William Maley recently told the media that Afghanistan remains “dangerous and full of risk.”
Those concerns about personal safety were confirmed when I began trying to arrange a visit to Jaghuri, the district in Ghazni province that was home to many of the Hazaras who’ve come to Australia. Every person I spoke to who had been to Jaghuri during the previous few months advised me that it was far too dangerous to travel to the area. The Taliban continued to block the roads – particularly those to Jaghuri and Qarabagh, which are connected to the Kabul–Kandahar highway – and kidnappings and killings were frequent. In a letter circulated three months ago, the Taliban warned that Jaghuri residents “must not commute in the Jaghuri–Qarabagh street otherwise you’ll be responsible for the dangerous consequences of your actions.” The announcement warned Jaghuri residents against using mobile phones, threatening those who were caught with dire consequences.
DIAC is correct in saying that, on paper, the recognition of the rights of minority groups like the Hazaras has increased. The number of human rights organisations operating in Kabul is impressive, as is the increasing number of Hazaras participating in civil society. But I was told countless stories about the covert discrimination Hazaras are still suffering in schooling, employment and everyday life. After years of ethnic tensions, one cannot expect the attitudes towards Hazaras simply to change overnight. On top of this, the international community and President Karzai are talking about reaching out to the Taliban and involving them in Afghanistan’s government. One can only guess how victims of years of Taliban violence – including Hazaras who have had a family member killed in the most barbaric way by the Taliban – must feel about this prospect.
I was in Kabul for the parliamentary elections, but during the voting I was advised to stay at home for my own safety. A national holiday had been declared and everyone was on high security alert. Over 2000 polling stations were closed because of the threat of violence; others were the targets of bomb attacks, but a news blackout was declared so that other voters would not be deterred from going to the polling booths. Anyone with ink on their finger from voting, said the Taliban, would have it cut off.
Against that background, the Australian government announced it would resume processing the suspended asylum claims. This is good news for those Hazaras who arrived during the suspension period and for those who arrive in the future. But the new immigration minister, Chris Bowen, also announced that a greater proportion of asylum claims are likely to be unsuccessful because of improved conditions in source countries. It is hard to believe that there could be any justification for denying a greater proportion of asylum claims from Hazaras, while in Afghanistan the security situation is deteriorating and the Taliban presence growing in most provinces •