Thousands of Australian Hazaras, many of whom fled persecution in Afghanistan, have taken to the streets of Canberra to protest the state visit of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani.
Ghani’s presence in Australia drew a crowd of protestors to Yarralumla and on to the streets of Canberra where Hazaras – an ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan who have been subject to generations of persecution – protested his three-day state visit, which began with a meeting with the governor general, Sir Peter Cosgrove.
Several thousands Hazaras and supporters demonstrated outside Government House and parliament. Busloads of Afghan nationals drove from Sydney, and some from Perth, to protest Ghani’s reception by the Australian government.
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said Afghanistan and Australia shared a solid connection that had been forged over more than a century; tracing ties from the Afghan cameleers of the 1860s through to Australia’s military efforts to free Afghanistan of terrorism in the 21st century.
“During this visit, discussions will focus on our ongoing security and development cooperation to help Afghanistan in its efforts to become more prosperous, secure and self-reliant,” Turnbull said.
“In particular, we will seek to enhance partnership between our nations in a number of fields including women’s and girls’ empowerment, public sector capacity building and agricultural productivity.”
Ghani, president of conflict-riven Afghanistan since 2014, is a divisive figure whose administration has been heavily criticised for a series of governance crises, a failing economy and worsening security situation across the country.
He is especially unpopular within the Hazara community, which argues he has failed to protect it from attack from anti-Shia insurgent groups, and over the Tutap powerline, a major electricity line which was re-routed away from the Hazara-majority area of Afghanistan,and which would have brought electricity and industry to Hazara communities.
In Australia there is particular concern too over the forcible return of Hazara asylum seekers to Afghanistan.
Sajjad Askary, who fled to Australia as a child and was afforded protection as a refugee, urged the Australian government to refuse any deal to expedite the forced return of asylum seekers.
“As a former Afghan refugee, I had to make the dangerous journey to Australia, travelling through deadly oceans on a tiny boat, and it was the Australian government who generously answered my desperate call for help,” Askary said.
“This country has given me a second chance at life but there are still thousands of Hazara people in desperate need of help.
“If Hazara people are deported back to Afghanistan, they will be subject to significant torture, abuse and potentially death.”
Australia has been one of the few countries to consistently forcibly return Afghan asylum seekers to their home country. The deportation of Afghans has been blocked by superior courts of several countries, including the UK, but Ghani has been pushing for new agreements over recent months to encourage European nations in particular to return Afghans.
Since 2014, Australia has forcibly returned several – The Guardian understands fewer than 10 – Hazara Afghans to Afghanistan, after it judged they did not meet Australia’s protection obligations.
Afghanistan’s minister for refugees and repatriations, Sayed Husaain Alemi Balkhi, told Australian government officials in February 2015 that Afghans should not be forcibly repatriated because of the worsening security situation.
Australia’s 2011 memorandum of understanding with Afghanistan allows for the forcible deportation of Afghan citizens (although it says voluntary returns are “preferable”). But Balkhi said that agreement was signed in 2011, when the security situation, with the presence in Afghanistan of thousands of foreign troops, was significantly more stable.
The most controversial case was the deportation of Zainullah Naseri, who was deported in August 2014, but who was reportedly captured within days by the Taliban as he travelled to his home province of Jaghori.
Naseri escaped after two days, having been beaten, whipped and tortured while the Taliban tried to secure a ransom for him.
The US department of state, in its 2016 human rights report on Afghanistan, said Hazara were specifically targeted by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, as well as facing broader discrimination and persecution.
“The Taliban continued to target and kidnap members of the Hazara ethnic community, executing Hazara hostages in certain instances,” the report says.
“Societal discrimination against Shia Hazaras continued along class, race and religious lines in the form of extortion of money through illegal taxation, forced recruitment and forced labor, physical abuse and detention.
“Multiple kidnappings of Hazara were reported in several provinces, including Ghazni, Zabul and Baghlan. The abductors reportedly shot, beheaded, ransomed or released the kidnapping victims.”
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) warns citizens not to travel to Afghanistan. It says: “no region in Afghanistan is immune from violence. Serious large-scale terrorist incidents, including suicide bombings and attacks using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, occur regularly throughout Afghanistan. Terrorist attacks can occur anywhere, anytime and are particularly common in Kabul, and the southern and eastern provinces.
“The frequency of attacks in Kabul and across the country has increased significantly, with many killed and wounded. There are credible reports of imminent attacks.”
Dfat’s specific thematic report on the safety of Hazaras in Afghanistan says the intercity roads of the country are not safe for Hazara.
“Multiple credible sources informed Dfat that some bus companies are refusing to sell tickets to Hazaras because of the risk to their vehicles and drivers of being stopped by insurgents or criminals because of the possibility of Hazaras being on board. There are also credible anecdotal reports of ‘spotters’ being used at bus stations to call ahead and alert insurgents as to which buses are carrying Hazara people.”
But Dfat says it is safe – and legal – to forcibly return Hazara to Afghanistan, even if there is violence in their home province or village, because they are able to live safely elsewhere in the country, particularly in the capital Kabul, to where many Hazara have fled.
The Australian government has consistently maintained that all returns are conducted in accordance with domestic and international law and that people are not returned to harm.
Professor William Maley, professor of diplomacy at the Australian National University, was asked to provide an expert opinion on the safety of return to Afghanistan for members of the Hazara minority, in March.
He wrote: “It is a serious mistake to conclude that Afghanistan is safe for Hazaras. The disposition of extremists to strike at them is not disappeared.”
He said claims that Hazara did not face systematic targeting because of their status as ethnic and religious minorities were, in the face of recent attacks directed against them, “completely untenable”.