Australia’s folly returns Afghan Hazaras to torture and death

Hazaras have long been persecuted in Afghanistan, but those returned from countries like Australia are in particular danger of being tortured and murdered. Wikimedia Commons/ISAF Public Affairs Office, CC BY

It has been a bad time lately for Afghan Hazaras with Australian connections. In late September, the shocking news came through that the Taliban had tortured and murdered an Australian of Afghan background, Sayed Habib Musawi. The Taliban had stopped the bus on which he was travelling in rural Afghanistan and pulled him from it.

In an interview with the ABC, the deputy governor of Ghazni province where the killing took place, Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, flatly stated:

Of course the reason is that he was an Afghan-Australian … He came from a country that the Taliban thinks is an infidel country.

Hard on the heels of this tragic report came another story, in its own way even more disturbing. At least in the case of Musawi, it was his own decision, however fateful, that resulted in his being in Afghanistan. This was not the case with Zainullah Naseri, whose horrific experiences were recounted in The Saturday Paper by Sydney-based freelance journalist and photographer Abdul Karim Hekmat.

On August 26 2014, Naseri was deported to Afghanistan from Australia. This was despite last-minute efforts in the Federal Circuit Court to prevent the Department of Immigration and Border Protection from removing him. In mid-September, seeking to travel to the district in Ghazni where his family lived, he was seized by six Taliban, tortured and — on the strength of his Australian driver’s licence and pictures in his mobile phone of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge — accused of being an infidel.

I have seen photos, not published in the press, of the injuries Naseri sustained from the Taliban’s vicious beating. Only by a stroke of good luck, namely the outbreak of fighting in the immediate vicinity that distracted the Taliban’s attention, was he able to escape.

The experiences of Sayed Habib Musawi and Zainullah Naseri are not surprising to anyone familiar with the long history of persecution of Hazaras in Afghanistan. While some Afghans of non-Hazara background have on occasion sought to play this down, the evidence is both clear and chilling.

A long history of killings and persecution

Hazaras have a distinctive physical appearance and are known to be overwhelmingly members of the Shiite Muslim minority. This has left them doubly exposed.

In August 1998, the Taliban massacred 2000 Hazaras in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. The analyst Ahmed Rashid described the massacre as “genocidal in its ferocity”.

Killings of Hazaras have continued since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001. For example, as reported by Reuters newsagency:

Afghanistan, June 25 - The bodies of 11 men, their heads cut off and placed next to them, have been found in a violent southern province of Afghanistan, a senior police official said on Friday. A police patrol discovered the bodies on Thursday in the Khas Uruzgan district of Uruzgan province, north of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, said police official Mohammad Gulab Wardak. “This was the work of the Taliban. They beheaded these men because they were ethnic Hazaras and Shi’ite Muslims,” he said.

On December 6 2011, a suicide bomber attacked Shiite Hazaras at a place of commemoration in central Kabul during the Ashura festival, which marks the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Almost simultaneously, a bomb in Mazar-e Sharif also killed Hazaras. The Kabul bomb killed at least 55 people and the Mazar bomb four more.

The Afghan photographer Massoud Hossaini was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of the aftermath of the Kabul atrocity. But many other killings of course go unreported in Western news services and escape the attention of Western embassies behind their sandbags and blast-proof walls in Kabul.

Refugee rulings defy DFAT warnings

Zainullah Naseri’s experience highlights a very peculiar dimension of official Australian analyses of Afghanistan. Different agencies seem to live in different worlds.

The DFAT Smartraveller website warns in stark terms that all of Afghanistan is unsafe. DFAT

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns in the starkest terms of the dangers of travel to Afghanistan. In its “Do not travel” advice dated September 16 2014, DFAT writes of “the extremely dangerous security situation and the very high threat of terrorist attack”. Attacks, DFAT notes, “can occur anywhere, any time” and: “No province can be considered immune from violence.” Furthermore, DFAT warns:

Overland travel is dangerous. Taliban and al-Qa'ida members are active in many parts of the country, thereby creating a significant security risk.

These are prescient comments indeed. However, warnings of this kind, which DFAT has been voicing for a long time, seem to have had precious little impact on the handling of Naseri’s application for refugee protection.

His case was assessed by a member of the Refugee Review Tribunal, Paul Millar, in December 2012. Millar expressed no doubts about Naseri’s credibility, but inadvertently showed how those who lack a “feel” for the situation in a disrupted state such as Afghanistan can get things horribly wrong. In effect, he narrowed his focus to the possibility of there being a safe route from Kabul to Naseri’s district:

The Tribunal is only considering the route for the applicant to make a journey from Kabul back to his native area. In those circumstances, the Tribunal accepts that the applicant is at risk as a Hazara of suffering harm in making that journey but the Tribunal finds that the level of risk does not reach the threshold of a real chance.

Millar added that “country information before the Tribunal is to the effect that Afghans who return to their country after seeking asylum in Western countries are not targeted for harm on that basis”.

No Hazara can safely return to Afghanistan

Authorities are ignoring warnings by DFAT, the UNHCR and Hazaras in Australia about the risks facing returned asylum seekers in Afghanistan. AAP/Steve Gray

Given what happened to Sayed Habib Musawi and Zainullah Naseri, there is a terrifying irony in such comments. Naseri should never have been forced back to Afghanistan, essentially because the fluidity of the situation there militates fundamentally against the kind of bold confidence that the Refugee Review Tribunal put on display. The decision that led to Naseri’s removal was deeply flawed when it was made, and badly out of date by the time he was removed.

On August 6 2013, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) affirmed this point in new Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-seekers from Afghanistan. These state that “while the conflict was previously located in the south and east, it now affects most parts of the country”, and point to the “volatility and fluidity of the armed conflict in Afghanistan in terms of the difficulty of identifying potential areas of relocation that are durably safe”. The guidelines identify “men and boys of fighting age” as potentially being in need of international protection, along with “members of minority religious groups”.

As long as this remains the case — and there is no sign that things are likely to change any time soon — there should be an absolute moratorium on the involuntary removal of Hazara asylum seekers to Afghanistan.

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