The wave of killings of Hazaras in Pakistan has escalated this year, with over 200 killed in just two horrific bombings. Yet our government wants to stop Hazaras trying to find safety in Australia—and is even trying to deport them back to danger in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The city of Quetta in Western Pakistan has become a home for many Hazaras fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, with an estimated 500,000 Hazaras seeking refuge in and around the city.
The Hazaras’ Shia Muslim religion is a minority in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has made them a target for Sunni Muslim extremist groups. They were viciously repressed under Taliban rule, with thousands killed. Targeted killings in Afghanistan continue, with five Hazaras taken off a bus in Ghazni province and murdered last October.
Hazaras have distinct Asiatic features that make them look different to other ethnic groups in the area, tracing their ancestry to either Buddhist pilgrims or descendants of Mongolian soldiers from Genghis Khan’s army.
However Quetta is far from safe. There has been ongoing attacks on Hazaras living in Quetta, by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ).
LEJ wants to “cleanse” Pakistan of all Shia Muslims. Hazaras, being both Shia Muslim and ethnically distinct from other groups living in Pakistan, are particularly vulnerable.
These attacks have escalated from LEJ snipers picking off civilians, to stopping buses and identifying and shooting the Hazara passengers, to now bombing public places, like social clubs, schools and markets where Hazaras frequent.
Since 1999, around 1300 people have been killed by these attacks, with more than 200 killed this year in nine separate incidents so far. Last year LEJ issued an ultimatum to the Hazara population of Quetta to leave by the end of the year or die. This January, two bomb blasts killed over 90 people. The first bomb exploded outside a billiard hall popular with Hazaras. A few minutes later, after ambulances arrived on the scene, a second bomb went off. This second bomb was interpreted as a chilling warning that anyone attempting to help rescue or assist survivors would face targeting themselves. In February, another bomb went off in a market place, killing at least another 90 people. Wary of a second bomb blast, few ambulances responded.
As a result Hazaras are increasingly shunned by the wider population. Hazara businesses have been forced to close after a number of shop owners were murdered. Qayyum Changaizee, a Hazara community leader in Quetta, has told how, “From primary education to universities, the doors to educational institutions are being closed to us. The doors to provincial government jobs have been closed to us as well. So they are cutting us off.”
The Pakistani authorities have done little to protect the Hazara community. Instead the police and military in particular have been complicit in the attacks. Despite claiming responsibility for attacks dating back to 2011 and both the January and February bombings, and openly celebrating the death toll on social media, the LEJ leadership continued to live openly in Punjab. It was only after the second horrific attack in February and the increasingly desperate protests by local Hazaras that police made a series of arrests. LEJ founder Malik Muhammad Ishaq was arrested at his house and detained for one month.
But other LEJ leaders, such as Usman Kurd and Dawood Badini, have managed to escape prison under mysterious circumstances in the past, suggesting they had inside help. Despite the large number of police and military in Quetta, LEJ members have been able to pass through military checkpoints unhindered both before and after attacking Hazaras. Local Hazaras say some attacks have even taken place within sight of military checkpoints.
It is clearly unsafe for Hazara asylum seekers fleeing Afghanistan to remain in Pakistan. Yet rather than trying to help them find safety, our government is working to keep them from leaving Pakistan. Since 2009 the Australian Federal Police and Australian intelligence agents have been involved in stemming the movement of asylum seekers from Pakistan through “disruption” activities.
An investigation by the Global Mail last year revealed that this involves cooperating with the Pakistani civilian Federal Investigation Agency in the form of intelligence sharing, technical help and training to stop people smugglers. Australia has also pressured the Pakistani authorities to intercept Hazaras at airports trying to leaving the country. Unfortunately for Hazaras, their distinctive Asian features mean they are easily racially profiled and identified.
In the face of such obvious persecution, it is appalling that the Australian government would try to pretend Hazaras are not in need of protection. We need to demand that they are all welcome to stay.