Melbourne, Australia – Australian members of the ethnic Hazara diaspora are desperately calling upon their government to do more to protect civilians in Afghanistan in the wake of heightened violence in the districts of Malistan and Jaghori.
As Australian parliament resumed in Canberra on Monday for its final sitting of 2018, dozens of Hazara Australians sat outside demanding action to prevent the “Talibanisation” of Afghanistan, including their rural highland homelands known as Hazarajat.
“The effects of the recent violence on the Hazara families in Australia have been profound,” Niamatullah Ibrahimi, an associate research fellow at Deakin University, told Al Jazeera.
“Most Hazaras in Australia have recently come from Afghanistan and have close immediate family members who live in the districts of Jaghori and Malistan, some have their family members or friends killed in these attacks.”
Sajjad Askary, a 22-year-old refugee activist based in Melbourne, said it’s difficult knowing what family members are going through back home.
“There is that psychological pressure that comes here, on my family, on my brother, because when [Hazaras] are being targeted we can feel because we have been through those targets,” said Askary.
“My father was killed by a militant. My mum is in pain because of her family, so we are also in pain. We are also in sorrow.”
In early November, Taliban forces began attacking primarily Hazara villages in Ghazni province, killing at least 63 civilians and displacing thousands.
Hazaras, who are distinct in their Asiatic appearance from other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, speak Persian and mainly practice Shia Islam, have long been targeted by Sunni armed groups such as the Taliban and more recently affiliates of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL also known as ISIS).
Consequently, Hazaras have become one of Australia’s most prominent refugee communities, estimated to account for some 50,000 people.
For Shukufa Tahiri, a Hazara former refugee and policy officer with the Refugee Council of Australia, the latest violence is deeply personal. She saw her grandmother on a televised news report among thousands of displaced persons who had fled to Bamiyan, the neighbouring province.
“Most of the displaced people are housed in the mosques or have been hosted by local residents,” she told Al Jazeera. “Without possibility in sight to return, people remain stranded without food, water and shelter.”
According to a situation update released by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, some 1,100 families have been displaced within Jaghuri and Malistan because of recent fighting.
“Many residents of Malistan and Jaghuri have been traumatised by the violence and insecurity, and fear the return of [the Taliban] to their areas,” it said. “The harsh winter conditions make it challenging for the IDPs [internally displaced persons] to cope and meet their immediate needs.”
A quarterly report from the Pentagon released in mid-November highlighted that United States forces have made little or no progress in combatting the Taliban and ISIL in Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of almost half of Afghanistan in recent years. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reports that a record high number of Afghan civilians were killed in the first half of 2018.
“Hazara communities – who have been targeted in attacks in Kabul by groups affiliated to the Islamic State – feel the government has failed to protect them and thus feel particularly vulnerable,” said Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher on Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
More than 25,000 Australian troops fought the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan between the time when Australia joined the US-led coalition in November 2001 and when it withdrew in 2013. This is the largest number outside of NATO.
“The Australian government has been a direct stakeholder in Afghanistan in the past 17 years, particularly in the province of Oruzgan where the brutal massacre of Hazaras occurred one month ago,” Tahiri of the Refugee Council said.
According to Besmellah Rezaee, an Adelaide-based lawyer and community spokesperson, “unless the world pays attention and acts urgently, we fear a repeat of the fate of the Yazidis at the hands of ISIS.”
“The Hazaras have overwhelmingly supported the international intervention in Afghanistan by refusing to support the insurgency and embracing the globalising social changes that have followed the intervention,” said Ibrahimi of Deakin University. “As a whole, the community stand out for their liberal attitudes towards female school enrolment and participation in public life. The Taliban oppose many of these social transformations, seeing them as foreign cultural invasion.”
In an open letter to Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Hazara community leaders this month wrote that: “We believe that the Australian government, as a major contributor to the international efforts for stabilisation and reconstruction of Afghanistan since 2001, can play a vital role in urging the National Unity Government of President Ashraf Ghani and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission to act to ensure the safety and security of the Hazara people.”
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Defence told Al Jazeera it is a national security priority for Australia to remain engaged in Afghanistan and “contain the threat of terrorism”.
“Australia contributes around 300 defence personnel to train, advise, and assist the Afghan security forces as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Resolute Support Mission.
“Australia strongly supports Afghanistan’s efforts to seek an inclusive and durable political settlement that will end violence and reduce the suffering of the Afghan people, including the Hazara population,” the spokesperson said.
The US has maintained an ongoing military presence in Afghanistan and is attempting to facilitate peace talks. Last month, a senior US official met directly with representatives of the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, reportedly to begin preliminary talks about the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
But Gossman of HRW warned against giving Taliban and militia leaders “outsized power” through the peace process.
“I think there is a great danger of repeating the mistakes of the past – of getting a quick and dirty peace deal that leaves in place militia commanders, warlords, Taliban commanders in the places they control – a jigsaw of rival militias who operate as a law unto themselves,” she told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a blueprint for renewed fighting, not peace. A comprehensive peace process should include human rights protections.”
Peace talks have emboldened the Taliban, said Tahiri. “Although the Taliban have been historically hostile and repugnant to Hazaras, these attacks were to advance into sovereign territories in light of simultaneous peace talks in Moscow,” she said.
Back in Australia, some 30,000 people seeking asylum face uncertainty and limited rights on bridging and temporary visas, many of whom are Hazara.
Askary’s own brother has been on a temporary visa for five years.
“There is not a clear pathway of how he applies for a permanent visa. He might get deported, he might get his permanent visa. But if he gets deported, he gets deported back to Afghanistan,” he said.
Despite the volatile situation in Afghanistan, Western countries including Australia have continued to repatriate Hazaras whose claims for asylum have been rejected. Some asylum seekers forcibly returned to the country have been targeted for kidnappings, torture and killings by the Taliban.
In 2014, a 56-year-old Afghan-Australian father of four was executed by the Taliban for seeking refuge in an “infidel country”, while he travelled by bus from Ghazni province to the capital Kabul.
The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network has released an “urgent” statement calling upon governments who host Hazara communities such as Pakistan, Iran and the European Union to “immediately halt the deportation or forced return of any Hazara to Afghanistan, regardless of whether or not they have refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”.
“It’s time for Western governments to open their eyes to the realities on the ground inside Afghanistan,” said the group’s programme coordinator Evan Jones. “Far from being a ‘safe’ country, threats such as kidnapping, suicide bombings and terrorist insurgencies remain far too common.”
Srinjoy Bose, a researcher on Afghanistan at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told Al Jazeera the reality is the country is still plagued by war.
“Let’s not mince words here: Hazaras face extreme security risks in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a conflict country, not a post-conflict country as some want to describe it as. The Taliban control and/or contest more territory than ever before since 2001, and security incidents against the Hazara community are everyday and commonplace,” he said.
“Within this context, forcibly returning Hazaras from Australia – especially young people – is irresponsible government policy,” he said.
Even without the threat of death or deportation, Taliban violence still takes a heavy toll on Hazara Australians.
“My brother who has got depression, every time the Taliban attacks Hazaras in Afghanistan, or every time Hazaras are being targeted in Quetta, Pakistan, it extremely affects him. He can’t sleep,” said Askary.
“When the Taliban attacks it comes on social media, all the pictures. Killing, bloodshed on Facebook, Twitter and I can’t focus on my studies. When the whole community is in this depression and thinking, I’m affected.”