The punitive conditions of the Australian government’s mandatory detention of refugees are well known around the country and even internationally. However, despite all the cruelty that the system imposes, it has not deterred refugees.
The reason for this is quite simple.
The vast majority of refugees have escaped situations of war and persecution in which their lives are in danger and they have no choice but to flee. They must use whatever means are at their disposal. This means using the existing channels of people smugglers through many different transit countries until they find a country that is safe and secure. A small proportion of the world’s total of refugees find their way to Australia.
The Australian government has not been content merely to thumb its nose at international conventions and laws relating to refugees. It has also been a willing participant in their persecution. Its detention centres have intensified the trauma refugees are already suffering, leading to catastrophic levels of self-harm, suicides and all manner of abuses. But little is known of the active engagement of the government’s secret security services in human rights abuses overseas in operations that are termed “disruption” activities.
The main targets of Australian authorities have been south-east Asia and the Middle East. Some of these disruption activities have been analysed. Former public servant Tony Kevin shone the light on the Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) involvement in a people-smuggling disruption program in his 2004 book, A Certain Maritime Incident, the Sinking of SIEV X. The book suggested that the disruption activities, which involved the collusion of corrupt officers in the Indonesian military, led to the mass drowning of 353 people. This tragedy was covered up by the then Howard government, with no answers being given to the families of the victims. Questions still remain regarding two other boats that disappeared at sea, one in 2009 and another in 2010, with not a single survivor.
Disruption activities have typically targeted people-smuggling operations in transit countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Under the Howard government, Australian security services worked with foreign governments to arrest people smugglers and may have even actively sabotaged and sunk their vessels. Not only have these operations continued under successive ALP governments, but they have been extended to include even more disturbing measures.
In 2000, there were just 10 AFP officers assigned to investigate and stop people smuggling. In 2009 more than $41.5 million was pledged over four years to target refugees and people smugglers in what has been a huge expansion of state intervention overseas. There are now at least 99 officers based in Australia and more than 10 posted overseas in several locations. The government has made the lives of refugees even more precarious, extending its operations to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, collaborating with the oppressive regimes of these countries to target not only people smugglers, but the refugees themselves.
In Pakistan, the Australian Security Intelligence Service and the AFP have collaborated with Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to restrict the movement of refugees. The AFP provides technical assistance and training to FIA agents, extending its reach throughout Pakistan. It has even gone as far as providing electronic systems to detect the use of false passports at Pakistan’s airports, leaving refugees with fewer options to escape persecution. From information obtained from authorities in Afghanistan, the Australian High Commission compiles blacklists of suspected refugees.
Through racial profiling of Hazara people, the authorities have closed the borders to a people who have long suffered from acts of genocide in Afghanistan, their homeland. This means large numbers of Hazara people are concentrated on the borders of Pakistan, suffering the same racial discrimination they have fled from, making them a target for further attack.
Australia’s collaboration with Pakistan’s security services has increased corruption as it has opened up more opportunities to take bribes. According to the Global Mail, an online news service that interviewed people smugglers in Quetta, FIA agents frequently arrest suspected people smugglers in Quetta, but release is routinely secured in return for payment. It also claimed the price of bribes has risen significantly since Australia’s involvement.
Quetta is known for many of the illegal activities that occur there, from kidnapping for ransom and people smuggling to trading weapons and narcotics. Members of Pakistan’s military have often been implicated in these activities.
Many Hazaras have accused security forces of being directly involved in attacks on Hazaras and having links with Islamic extremist organisations. Events in 2012 give credence to these assertions. In 2012 Hazara people were killed every week, the number totalling more than 100 in Quetta. The violence has continued this year with two bomb blasts killing more than 115 people, both in neighbourhoods with large concentrations of Hazara refugees.
Many of these attacks are carried out by religious fundamentalist groups in broad daylight, in busy streets, at universities, in medical centres and market areas. According to the Asian Human Rights Watch, these groups in Quetta region have the full support of Pakistan’s government and its intelligence agencies, and also receive training from the Federal Frontier Corps, a reserve military force led by general officers from the army.
In March 2012, Hazara coal mine workers were ambushed in Quetta and two of them were killed. A number of Hazaras were then shot dead by police officers at a peaceful protest that demanded the end of sectarian violence. In September 2012, 26 Hazaras were taken out of a bus and executed in broad daylight. Not long after in the small town of Mastung, seven Hazaras were shot dead in similar circumstances. The police again responded with violence towards the victims, shooting three more Hazara people. In another instance the attackers followed their targets to the hospital and beat them with sticks, while another assailant opened fire with an AK-47 in the hospital ward.
While the situation for Hazaras is dangerous in Pakistan, they fear returning to Afghanistan, where the country is in ruins and the Taliban is still carrying out attacks against them. Memories of the acts of genocide that occurred there are still fresh in the minds of the Hazara people. In Mazar-e Sharif and Bamyan provinces 1998, it is estimated the Taliban killed 15,000 Hazara people in one day. In a frenzy of killing, Hazara people were packed into shipping containers; patients in hospitals were murdered in their beds; men, women and children were shot dead in the street and their bodies dumped in the desert.
The politics of deterrence
Quetta is a garrison city with five different military detachments based there. Yet those detachments themselves often pose a threat to Hazara people. They live in a constant state of terror. With an increasing number of lives lost every week, Hazaras have few alternatives to finding passage to safety via people smugglers. There is no formal process to seek asylum available to them.
The government of Pakistan has done nothing to ensure the safety of refugees in Quetta and is unwilling to bring to justice those who have persecuted the Hazara people. Many Hazaras have speculated that it is reluctant to do so because the killings act as a deterrent to other Hazaras fleeing the ruins of Afghanistan. This appears to be congruous with the aims of the Australian government, whose own methods of deterrence have been extremely cruel: imprisoning refugees on remote islands or in the desert indefinitely or deporting them back to where they have fled from.
The unscrupulous means by which Australian security services have sought to restrict the movement of refugees in a place that is of great danger to them leaves the government with blood on its hands. It has spent tens of millions of dollars in Pakistan and other countries, not to prevent the dangers Hazara people face or offer them safe passage, but to prevent them fleeing from danger. The governments of both Pakistan and Australia are implementing racist policies that further the genocide that has been perpetrated against the Hazara people.
Direct Action, January 14, 2013