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KARACHI, Pakistan, Sep 6 2012 (IPS) - It will be no less than a miracle if Nadir Ali makes it to Australia, where he planned to seek asylum. But with each passing day, since his boat went missing over two months ago, hopes are dimming.
Ali, a 45-year-old Shia Hazara daily wage earner from Quetta in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, had reached Indonesia and boarded the boat from Jakarta on May 22, along with 24 others, most of them from the same community. But the boat lost contact soon after it hit the high seas, and has been missing for over two months.
“We were told that the sea was rough and the boat was too small,” said Qadir Nayel, Ali’s younger brother speaking to IPS over the phone from Quetta. “But because there is no news of them having drowned, we are hoping against hope.” Nayel said his brother paid over 10,000 dollars for the passage.
But why are Hazaras fleeing the country?
In what looks like a rerun of history, the Hazara Shias, with a population of around 956,000 (nearly 600,000 of whom live in Quetta alone), are being persecuted again in Pakistan because of their ethnicity and their history of conflict with Sunni Muslims.
Most of the world’s eight to 10 million Hazara people, easily recognisable by their Mongol-like features, live in Afghanistan. But some 120 years ago, many fled that country, where they were being persecuted by the dominant Sunni Pashtun tribes. In Pakistan they were well received, and some rose to important positions in the government.
Shias of all ethnicities account for about 20 percent of Pakistan’s Sunni-majority population of 180 million.
Hussain (name changed on request) lost five members of his family, including a maternal uncle, a widowed sister-in-law and her three children, when the boat they were travelling in was shipwrecked in high waters in the Indian Ocean in 2009.
“The last time my uncle spoke to me was before boarding the ship from Jakarta,” Hussain said. “He sounded very disturbed with the arrangement. He said if he’d known, he would never have ventured out in the first place. By morning we got the news that their ship had gone under and all of them had perished.”
In recent years, scores of Hazara Shias have fled Balochistan in southwest Pakistan. There are significant communities of Hazara in Europe, Turkey and Australia.
While official statistics are hard to come by and people are afraid to give information, the exodus has been fuelled by the rise in target killings of members of this community.
According to Abdul Khaliq, chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party, over 25,000 Hazaras have left Pakistan in the last decade, the vast majority of them in the last three years. “I’d say over 1,000 people have perished while making the perilous journey,” he told IPS over the phone from Quetta.
He was referring to the most common route followed by the fleeing Hazara, who go to Indonesia legally and then try to sneak into Australia illegally.
Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, told IPS that the Hazara have been reduced to a “ghetto existence in Quetta.”
“They can only go about their daily business at the risk of their lives. It is hardly surprising that members of the Hazara community are seeking political asylum in large numbers, and it would be a very cruel host state indeed that would deny them the same,” he added.
For his part, Hussain said “Nobody wants to leave their country willingly; who would want to leave family and friends and take on a journey we all know is fraught with danger, but we have been pushed to the wall.”
Since the beginning of the year, 47 Shia Hazaras have been killed in 21 separate incidents of violence, according to the South Asia Terrorist Portal (SATP). In 2011, 203 Shias were killed, including 27 Hazaras.
Lately, they have been identified, forced out of buses and vans, and killed. Ambreen Agha, a researcher with the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, which manages the SATP, terms the killing of Hazaras a “sectarian issue.”
“Their Shia identity has posed a threat to their existence in a society that is marred by religious intolerance, the existence of extremist formations, and subsequent impunity that sectarian ‘murderers’ enjoy within the legal and political framework of Pakistan,” she told IPS by email. “Sectarianism adds to the chaotic spirit of Islamabad.”
This was corroborated by HRW’s Hasan. “Hazaras are being targeted as part of a broader exercise in targeting all Pakistani Shias, but it is equally true that the Hazara suffer from double jeopardy – being ethnically distinct in addition to being Shia.”
HRW’s research indicates that the banned Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) is behind the killings. “It claims responsibility for these attacks,” said Hasan.
In June 2011, LeJ warned the Hazaras: “…now jihad against the Shia Hazara has become our duty. We will rest only after hoisting the flag of true Islam on the land of the pure – Pakistan.”
To Agha it means a “total failure or collusion” of the state machinery with these militant organisations.
Hasan said “The state may or may not be complicit in the LeJ’s murderous actions, but independent observers believe that law enforcement and intelligence agencies are, at the very least, turning a blind eye.”
Agha, who has been researching Hazara issues since 2010, complained that the Pakistani state has never “mounted any effective resistance” or carried out a “sustained effort to dismantle the hard-core sectarian militant outfits” that have linkages with both the religious parties and the Pakistani establishment.
“Unless Islamabad abandons its policy of tolerance towards the sectarian religious parties and their militant counterparts, there is little hope that Hazara Shias will continue to live in peace within the poisoned territorial boundaries of Pakistan,” she maintained.
Meanwhile, thousands of asylum-seekers from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of whom belong to the Hazara community, have been trying to reach Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean – Australia’s closest point to Indonesia – in rickety, overcrowded vessels. Since late 2009, more than 600 people have died in the attempt to make it to the island.
In August, the Australian parliament tried to make changes in its immigration policy to deter asylum-seekers by deporting them to offshore detention centres. The move met with strong criticism from rights groups.
“It’s a big ocean; it’s a dangerous ocean,” said Prime Minister Julia Gillard. “We’ve seen too many people lose their lives trying to make the journey to Australia.” She had proposed sending asylum-seekers to Malaysia for processing, but the plan was rejected by Australia’s highest court.
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