Researchers Maryam Kanwer and Jaffer Mirza speak to Shia Hazara Afghan refugees who are living in fear and hiding in Pakistan.
‘There were so many people, and it was difficult for the elderly. They would fall and people would step on them. It was like judgment day. Everyone was [only] thinking about himself/herself’. Ali Raza*, a 22-year-old Shi’a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, narrated the ordeal he had witnessed at the Pak-Afghan borders* when the Taliban took over. Like Raza, other Shi’a Hazara Afghan refugees, whom we spoke to, had similar traumatic stories to share. However, what is more horrific is that their miseries did not end by crossing the border, as they had hoped. In fact, they are now facing a different level of persecution in Pakistan.
Traumatic experiences in Afghanistan and border crossing
As with any other ethnicity and religious group in Afghanistan, Shi’a Hazaras had invested everything into building a better life since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But when the Taliban seized power again on 15th August, all this vanished.
“I had spent 25 years … mak[ing] a life for myself and my kids, but everything is gone now. Home, education, work; everything is gone”.Qurban Ali, 47, a carpenter from Kabul
Zainab Rezai, 28, an IT specialist who was working with the Afghan government, had to leave Kabul with no documents. ‘I had no idea that life would change completely in a few days. We had no passport or visas…We knocked on each door for help but had nowhere to go. Finally, we decided to leave for Pakistan’.
Shi’a Hazaras in Afghanistan have experienced over century-old state-led persecution. No matter what the Taliban say, Shi’a Hazaras believe that an ethnic cleansing will resume due to the Taliban’s decades long animosity towards them.
Raza asserts that “Taliban leaders say that ‘we would not hurt anyone’, but don’t you see that they have thrown the people of Daikundi? There is no difference between the Taliban of 1990s and these Taliban.” Raza is right in his assessment of the Taliban’s unchanged modus operandi. On 30th August, the Taliban killed 13 Shi’a Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, in Daikundi province, violence which Amnesty International described as ‘war crimes’.
Some of the refugees had personally witnessed the persecution of their family.
Saltanat Hassani, a 52-year-old woman from Mazar Sharif, recalled when the Taliban first came to power in 1990s, ‘they came to each house, searched for men, and took my father, my elder brother and my cousin.”
After eight months, we discovered that they’d killed my father, but nobody knows what’s happened to my brother and cousin till this day’.Saltanat Hassani, a 52-year-old woman from Mazar Sharif
Qurban described how the Taliban had forcibly cut his long hair twice. ‘[I am] scared that they might do the same again; beat people up, oppress and even kill them’.
Besides threats to their lives, Zainab added that, as a Shi’a Hazara woman, it was impossible to live in Afghanistan and pursue her dreams. ‘Having no other option, I felt hopeless and decided to leave everything behind’. Saeeda, 24, a medical student, told us ‘We knew that they would not allow the girls to study. I had to practice medicine which seemed impossible there’.
Those who managed to flee are also concerned about the threat to their indigenous culture. Saeeda fears that ‘burqas will be imposed on all women. We do pardah [covering] but [wearing a] burqa is not part of that’.
“If we are not allowed to celebrate our own culture then it will die eventually’.Saeeda*
Since the collapse of Kabul was unpredictably sudden, many Shi’a Hazaras were not prepared i.e. they did not have passports or visas. Subsequently, many tried crossing the border illegally to save their lives. Some paid smugglers between 15,000 to 35,000 Afghani (£121 to £284) per person. Zainab told us ‘We stayed at the border for 4 days, then each of us crossed separately to places we didn’t know’.
There were cases of explicit discrimination against Shi’a Hazaras even with official documentation. Qurban Ali told us that he was denied entry despite showing his documents to Pakistani authorities. ‘They did not allow my family, despite our pleas. They even beat me with a cable wire’. Ali Raza claimed that ‘those whose Tazkiras (Afghan ID card) were from Qandahar (mostly Pashtuns) were allowed to cross while people from other provinces (mostly Hazaras) were denied entry…the trafficker told me introduce myself as someone’s son so that I can cross the border’.
Challenges faced by Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Those who finally managed to enter Pakistan hoped they could breathe a sigh of relief. But it seems Shi’a Hazaras have no place to go. On 15th September, the Balochistan authorities criminalised anyone offering refuge to Afghan refugees and warned of strict repercussions. They also deported more than 500 refugees.
More importantly, the Government has held the official position that ‘there are no Afghan refugees or refugee camps’ in Pakistan. As a result, the authorities have raided local mosques hosting refugees. Saltanat told us ‘We stayed nearly two weeks in a masjid. Then we were told to find somewhere else otherwise we will be taken by the police’.
A mosque caretaker hosting refugees told us that he was threatened with arrest by ‘people’ from the government who was told, ‘if you host anyone [refugees], we will raid and arrest you’.
“Refugees…fear that the police might come and arrest them and send them back to Afghanistan”.Sajid Ali, 35, a qualified accountant
Zainab also shared her fears: ‘The Pakistani government doesn’t want us here and [has already] deported people’. She’s not registered herself as a refugee because ‘we are terrified and can’t take the risk. We don’t want to be sent back’. Sajid warns that if they are deported, their lives will be at risk. ‘We will be at the Taliban’s mercy’. In fact, most refugees are hiding, fearing deportation.
“We will be at the Taliban’s mercy [if we are sent back]”Sajjad Ali
Criminalising the hosting of refugees has also restricted their mobility. As Zainab describes: ‘We can’t work and that puts us at significant financial risk’. Ali Raza added ‘if we were allowed [to travel], then we might get better work opportunities’.
Their hasty departure meant that most refugees came unprepared. Qurban said ‘We could not bring any clothing or stuff for the winter. I want to go to [named city] where it is warmer. But I have heard that people are not allowed in and stopped at different places’. Saeeda told us that even those with legal documents are being harassed and stopped by the authorities.
On top of this, refugees are faced with a slow registration process. All six refugees we interviewed complained that they had not heard back from the organisation leading the process.
Pakistan must decriminalise support for Afghan refugees and support their registration
Pakistan’s refusal to acknowledge the presence of Afghan refugees and its crackdown against them not only undermines the handling of this humanitarian crisis but also heaps more misery on those who have already experienced violence, discrimination and suffering just to reach Pakistan.
And this crackdown and intimidation is not restricted to Balochistan. Refugees are being stopped and harassed while travelling to different cities. An aid worker in Islamabad informed us that his organisation had gone to provide relief aid to around 50 refugee families from Afghanistan who had arrived in Rawalpindi’s Sadiqabad area in early September, but found that those families escaped overnight due to raid threats. The pattern of hosts receiving threatening calls from people pretending to be from the ‘government’ or ‘security agencies’ has become a tool to drive out refugees from different cities such as Quetta, Rawalpindi/Islamabad.
Pakistan, in general, and the Balochistan government, in particular, should urgently decriminalise support for refugees and accelerate their registration process.
*All names have been changed to preserve the safety of the respondents.
*We are not mentioning specific borders and cities to avoid any traceability.
We are indebted to our local interlocutors who assisted us in conducting interviews.
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