Going to a graveyard: Afghan Hazaras dread Pakistan expulsion

A woman prays in front of the graves at a Hazara cemetery for the Shi'ite community martyrs on a hill on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan October 20, 2021.  REUTERS/Jorge Silva

A woman prays in front of the graves at a Hazara cemetery for the Shi'ite community martyrs on a hill on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan October 20, 2021. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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As Pakistan prepares to deport more than a million Afghans from Nov. 1, persecuted Shi'ite Hazaras fear for their lives back home

KARACHI, Pakistan - Sadiq, an ethnic Hazara, fled Afghanistan last year because he was attacked and beaten by the members of the Taliban regime. Now, the 25-year-old faces expulsion from Pakistan and he fears a return to his home country could amount to a death sentence.

"Going to Kabul would be like going to a graveyard to be buried," he said, recalling how the Taliban stormed his house in the Afghan capital and abducted him to find out the location of other family members who had worked for the previous government.

"I fear they will ... kill me this time for running away. They have their eyes on me," he said.

Earlier this month, Pakistan ordered all illegal immigrants, including more than 1.5 million Afghan nationals, to leave the country by Nov. 1 or be deported.

Sadiq, who lives in the southwestern city of Karachi with his family and who only gave his first name to protect his identity, said he had made no preparations to leave as he could see no future in Afghanistan.

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The expulsion plan marks a new low in Pakistan's relations with Kabul and was announced after border clashes between the South Asian neighbours in September.

Islamabad has said that Afghan nationals were responsible for more than a dozen suicide bombs this year and that Islamist militants fighting the Pakistani state operate from Afghan territory. The Taliban deny these allegations.

Many Afghans fear deportation to their native land, where the United Nations says human rights are in a state of collapse, but the risks are particularly high for Hazaras like Sadiq.

The predominantly Shi'ite community has faced decades of persecution by Sunni Taliban, who revile them as infidels.

During their 1996-2001 rule, the hardline Islamist Taliban massacred thousands of Persian-speaking Hazaras, who are believed to be descended from Mongol invaders and who have distinctive facial features, making them vulnerable to attacks, including by the militant Islamic State, rivals to the Taliban.

Life for the Hazara improved somewhat after a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in 2001 but the sudden return of the hardline regime two years ago led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Afghans, including Hazaras, academics, journalists and women.

Many crossed into neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, while others went further afield. Today, Pakistan says around 1.73 million Afghans live in the country without legal documents.

A group of United Nations rights experts said the Afghan refugees "would be at risk of irreparable harm" if they went back, and urged Pakistan to uphold the international principle of non-refoulement - supposed to guarantee that nobody will be repatriated to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.

The United States has "strongly" encouraged Afghanistan's neighbors to allow entry for Afghans seeking protection.

The deportation order comes as Pakistan struggles with political instability and an economic crisis caused by low growth, a weak currency and spiralling prices. Pakistan's prime minister's office and the interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

'Genocide of Hazaras'

Afghanistan's Taliban have said the deportation plan is "unacceptable", arguing that Afghans are not responsible for Pakistan's security threats.

"How can Afghan refugees be sent back forcefully and on such a short notice?" Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Context.

He said fears that returnees could be in danger was "sheer propaganda" being circulated by those seeking political asylum in Western countries.

"The ground reality is very different. We welcome anyone and everyone who will enter Afghan soil," Shaheen said, adding that many Hazaras still live in Afghanistan, with several holding "good government positions".

But as well as enduring some of the bloodiest attacks in Afghan history, Hazaras traditionally have had limited access to housing, healthcare, jobs and education.

When it took power again in 2021, the Taliban promised that all Afghan ethnic groups would be protected but last year, the regime said it had killed one of its former leaders, who was known as the first Hazara commander, because he had allegedly rebelled against the de facto government.

For many Hazaras, brutality and fear are a daily reality.

"Genocide of Hazaras in Afghanistan is still going on. The Taliban is trying to take the Hazara areas in Afghanistan under various pretexts," said Amir, a Hazara in Kabul who declined to give his full name.

Hazara families have been evicted from their homes and farms by the Taliban, in many cases with only a few days' notice, and without any chance to prove their legal claims, residents and rights campaigners say.

"No Hazara is safe here and there is no guarantee that the majority of Hazaras who return to Afghanistan will not be killed," said Amir, 28, who abandoned his dream job as a singer-musician after facing constant abuse from the Taliban. He works as a marketer in a small company now.

"Life is like hell," he said, adding that his wife, a women's rights activist, had given up her job to stay at home.

People from ethnic Hazara community play a game Sang Girag (stone throwing) near a graveyard in Mariabad, Quetta, Pakistan, June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

People from ethnic Hazara community play a game Sang Girag (stone throwing) near a graveyard in Mariabad, Quetta, Pakistan, June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

People from ethnic Hazara community play a game Sang Girag (stone throwing) near a graveyard in Mariabad, Quetta, Pakistan, June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Pakistan no safer

Pakistani officials have said that around 52,000 Afghans have already left ahead of the deadline.

On Thursday, Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti said there would be no leniency around the deadline and that special centres had been set up to house those who defy the order until they can be repatriated.

Geofencing technology will be used to track those in hiding, he said.

Qaiser Khan Afridi, spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency in Pakistan, said there should be no forced returns to Afghanistan.

"Any refugee return must be voluntary and without any pressure," he said.

With Afghanistan going through a humanitarian crisis with "several human rights challenges, particularly for women and girls", returns could have serious safety implications, he said.

Rights groups warn that a forced mass repatriation would compound dire problems in Afghanistan, where people are struggling with food shortages, droughts, and a sharp drop in vital foreign aid, which formed the backbone of the economy.

Earlier this month, deadly earthquakes - described by a U.N. official as a "disaster on top of a disaster" - flattened villages and destroyed livelihoods in the northern Herat province.

"Winter has set in, and the country is grappling with the earthquake tragedy and the Afghan people have no confidence in the regime that is in power," said Jalila Haider, a Pakistani Hazara lawyer.

But Pakistan is not much safer, Hazaras say.

Without valid visas or proper identification cards, Hazara families are forced to live under the radar, turning to a long-established network of Afghan migrants, as well as friends and relatives, to find work and accommodation.

Hazara families say the situation has become worse since the repatriation plans were announced. Many have been arrested or forced to pay bribes, while others lost their jobs overnight or were kicked out by their landlords.

"It has not been easy to find work because without ID cards nobody gives you work," said Kemya, a widow and mother-of-four, who moved to Karachi after the Taliban killed her husband last year.

"Five months ago, a water filter company gave my eldest son work but ... after the government's announcement of deportation, they told him not to show up," said Kemya, who only gave her first name.

A Hazara man reads the Koran along a passageway with photos of deceased victims who lost their lives during target killings and bomb attacks, at the graveyard called Shuhda Qabristan (martyred graveyard) in Mariabad, Quetta, Pakistan, June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

A Hazara man reads the Koran along a passageway with photos of deceased victims who lost their lives during target killings and bomb attacks, at the graveyard called Shuhda Qabristan (martyred graveyard) in Mariabad, Quetta, Pakistan, June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

A Hazara man reads the Koran along a passageway with photos of deceased victims who lost their lives during target killings and bomb attacks, at the graveyard called Shuhda Qabristan (martyred graveyard) in Mariabad, Quetta, Pakistan, June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Dreams quashed

Pakistan has said the deportation process will be orderly and conducted in phases, possibly beginning with people with criminal records.

Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch said the plan was "alarming", and not just for Hazaras.

"It's left people feeling very much stuck between a rock and a hard spot," she said, adding that Afghan LGBTQ+ refugees were also in a "truly terrible situation because there is no way that they can live safely under the Taliban but they are also not safe in Pakistan".

The proposed mass expulsion has also stoked anxiety among Afghan journalists, judges, academics, and civil rights activists, who fled the Taliban.

Women too are at risk: U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said last month that women and girls face a "shocking level of oppression" in Afghanistan.

It's a dire prospect for Sadiq's wife Leena, also a Hazara. She is refusing to go back to Kabul, where once upon a time she was free to go to university, visit ice-cream parlours with Sadiq, and sing and dance at weddings.

"I wanted to be a businesswoman after my studies. I thought I could do anything ... But I cannot find work here and I will definitely not be able to complete my studies or work in Afghanistan. I don't know what will become of us if Pakistan forces us out," she said.

"All my dreams have been quashed."

(Reporting by Zofeen T. Ebrahim, Additional reporting and writing by Annie Banerji; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile.)


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