Packed with 80 to 82 fellow passengers, as their boat left the port in Jakarta, Amjad Hussain, was still unsure if he’d made the right decision leaving his family, his career, and his country for an alien land.
A print and broadcast journalist, Hussain, 38, belongs to the Hazara Shia community. He decided to leave Pakistan illegally and seek asylum in Australia in February after he realised the legal route would take forever.
Many journalists in Pakistan say he made the right decision otherwise he may have met the same fate as his journalist friend Saleem Shahezad’s, who many believe got caught in the crosshairs of Pakistan’s spy agencies and was killed in 2010 after he had written an investigative piece pointing to infiltration by the Al-Qaeda into the armed forces.
Over the last one decade, the Hazara Shias, easily recognised by their Mongol-like features, have been a target of persecution because of their ethnicity. In Pakistan there are an estimated 956,000 people belonging to this community of which 600,000 live in Quetta city alone. Abdul Khaliq, chairperson of the Hazara Democratic Party has seen as many as 25,000 from his community fleeing Pakistan in the last decade or so. Official statistics are hard to come by but the exodus has been fuelled by the rise in target killings of members of this community.
“Sectarianism is increasingly becoming widely accepted in Pakistan and the space for minorities (including those who are minorities by belonging to a different sect) is shrinking,” pointed out Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
A fact-finding mission undertaken by the HRCP from May 15-19, 2012 in Balochistan, and which was made public in a report last month, pointed out that the Hazara community believed that those responsible for law enforcement in Balochistan were involved in their killings.
“We have no evidence but also wonder why under the high security conditions of Balochistan killers can act with impunity,” Yusuf told Dawn.com, adding: “When security agencies can pick up Baloch nationalists so easily, why not the killers of Hazaras?”
The Human Rights Watch has pointed Lashkar-e-Jahnagvi (LeJ) to be behind these killings. “It claims responsibility for these attacks,” Pakistan director of the HRW, Ali Dayan Hasan told Dawn.com.
“The LeJ, supposedly a banned party, is very active in the Punjab and has set up cells in Balochistan,” agreed HRCP’s Yusuf.
In June 2011, LeJ warned the Hazaras: “...jihad against Shia-Hazara has become our duty. We will rest only after hoisting the flag of true Islam on the land of the pure – Pakistan.”
The HRCP reported that “talibanisation” was growing and what was even more worrisome was that “unlike the past, religious fanaticism was not merely being exported to the province from elsewhere; it was now being bred in Balochistan”. A growing network of madressas, said the HRCP, had fuelled inter-sect tensions and there were fears that the “security forces were patronizing militants and Quetta was being turned into a haven for militants”.
Ambushed, identified and forced out of buses and vans, since the beginning of the year over four dozen Hazara Shias have been massacred mercilessly, in over 21 separate incidents of violence, according to the South Asia Terrorist Portal (SATP). In 2011, 203 Shias were killed of which 27 belonged to the Hazara community.
But Ambreen Agha, a researcher with the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, that manages the SATP, is not surprised by the scores of Hazaras leaving Pakistan.
“Pakistan’s lackadaisical approach towards sectarian militant outfits has emboldened them, pushing the Hazaras out of their ghettos in search of a land that could give them the basic rights to live in peace and security,” Ambreen says.
“It is because of Islamabad’s internal functional collapse and operational success of sectarian-militant outfits which continue to target them,” she explains to Dawn.com
In addition, living in constant fear of persecution has rendered the community to become ghettoised. Qadir Nayel, another Hazara journalist is on “forced leave” since the past one month.
“It’s too dangerous to venture out so my organisation has given me leave,” he tells Dawn.com. Unfortunately, this leave is without pay. Meanwhile, his older brother remains missing since he boarded a ship in Jakarta in May for Australia. “His family of four is also my responsibility,” referring to the financial crunch he was feeling.
Muhammad Amir Rana, editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies, says: “The state fears backlash from majority stake holders, which further ignites the crisis”. It is the “fire-fighting approach” towards ideological and ethnic issues, says Rana, which makes it impossible for the state from taking concrete steps to stem the violence.
But even organisations that facilitate refugees otherwise are nowhere to be seen. Dunya Aslam Khan of the UNHCR, while pointing out her organisation’s limitations put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the Pakistan government.
“The UNHCR’s mandate is limited to refugees, stateless and the internally displaced people. Protection of people affected by violence within the boundaries of their own country is the responsibility of the government of the land,” she told Dawn.com.
But the journey to peace and security is not only fraught with danger, it is quite expensive. Many, like Hussain have paid huge sums to human traffickers for a perilous sea and sneaked into Australia, but many others, like Naye’l brother, have not been so lucky. Khaliq, talking to Dawn.com estimates that there are over a 1,000 people perished before reaching their destination.
“You need a minimum of US$ 10,000 to undertake the journey. Another $15,000 to 20,000 after you land in Australia to be able to survive till you find a job,” says Hussain, speaking to Dawn.com, narrating the harrowing experience of being smuggled, over Skype from Brisbane, where he waits to for his citizenship.
Nayel, talking over phone from Quetta, too, confirmed the amount saying his brother paid the trafficker $ 10,000 for the journey. In addition, it may take from a couple of weeks to as long as six months to take the final sea journey from Jakarta to Australia and those seeking this illegal way have to make provision for the sojourn too.
As the small, rickety fishing boat lurched perilously cutting the sea, sitting among scores of sea-sick people, in the thick of the night, for the hundredth time, Hussain said he wondered if he’d make it alive. It was February of this year, spending two days and two nights under the open sky till he reached Christmas Island from Jakarta. He spent over five months in a detention centre, before his asylum application was accepted and he was released.
The path usually taken by asylum seekers from countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, who want to reach Australia is to fly from home country to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and then to Jakarta. From Jakarta they are taken on a small boat to Christmas Island, a territory in the Indian Ocean closest to Indonesia. Since the late 2009, more than 600 people have died and not made it to the island.
“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.
In August, the Australian parliament tried bring about changes in its immigration policy to deter asylum seekers by deporting them to offshore detention centres. However, this was met with strong criticism from rights groups.
“It’s horrible being a refugee,” he says, adding: “I’d never have left Pakistan; if circumstances had been different. It’s my country; it’s where I have an identity,” he says, his voice trembling with emotion. “But I was given no option...” he added.
Hussain said it took them a century to make a mark in Pakistan (after they fled similar persecution by dominant Sunni Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan) and it will “take us another 100 years to find our place in Australia!” he said.
The author is a freelance journalist.