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No Refuge


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No refuge

Even if Afghanis manage to escape their country, their troubles have only just begun. The trail could lead them anywhere - Chris Richards follows it to Australia.

They fled in hunger. They fled in fear. They arrived in Pakistan and Iran, in groups and alone, a slow procession through the 1990s. The refugee villages are now well established, almost like towns, complete with mud houses and shops. While the World Trade Center still stood, more than three million Afghanis gave up their homeland for the halfway existence of a refugee: no country, no vote, no voice. In today’s world, they are the lucky ones.

Many more now want to join them; hundreds of thousands have been making their way across Afghanistan, pouring out of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad with no food and little water. How will the world now respond?

Almost all the world’s countries have stood beside the US, vowing to avenge the terrorist attack on 11 September. The question now is, which countries will also stand up to protect those who have committed no crime: the innocents of Afghanistan?

Pakistan will. As this magazine is being printed, Pakistan is preparing to re-open its border with Afghanistan and receive one million Afghanis. But Afghanistan will continue to empty, and millions will want to cross. Yusaf Hassan works in Pakistan with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He has prepared for a crisis of epic proportions. Asked how Pakistan will cope, he says that the problem is ‘global’. Many more countries must take Afghanis in temporary asylum.

On paper, there are plenty who should; 134 countries have signed a UN agreement to offer protection to anyone who ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his [or her] nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him [or her] self of the protection of that country.’ Such people are officially defined as refugees – among the 14 million around the world who have fled their homelands in fear of being tortured, raped, persecuted or hurt, and are still too afraid to return.

But although refugees are fleeing in ever-increasing numbers, the willingness of countries to take them is failing. During the 1990s the number admitted to other countries dropped by 56 per cent. In 1999 seven million people fled their homes but only 70,000 were given refuge by another country.

Australia’s treatment of Afghanis is a good example of how international attitudes are hardening, pushing these figures even lower. The Australian Government paint Afghani asylum seekers with little sympathy, saying they are trying to jump the queue ahead of others who have gone patiently through the proper channels. But in Afghanistan, seeking asylum in Australia through the proper channels was always difficult – there’s no office to process the form. To make an offshore application Afghanis had to leave their country and get to the Australian High Commission in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Nuclear physicist Dr Nouria Salehi came to Australia from Afghanistan 20 years ago. She says that Afghanis who make an application in Pakistan meet obstacles at every turn: demands for bribes they can’t afford; a three-year wait before they find out whether Australia will accept them. Dr Salehi was recently told by an official from Australia’s Department of Immigration that so far this year they had accepted only three families from Afghanistan through this offshore process. The Australian High Commission in Pakistan has now withdrawn most of its staff and applications are no longer being processed at all.

When you’re a young person targeted for army service by the Taliban and desperate to get away, this method is too difficult and too long. Paying to be smuggled into a country offers one of the few alternatives. Families sell their land to raise the money demanded by the people-smugglers and get their children to safety.

Afghanistan - a snapshot
During the 19th century the British established the outlines of present-day Afghanistan as a 'buffer' between its Indian 'Raj' and Russia to the north. In 1919 the British were finally expelled by a third uprising against them. After World War Two the superpowers played out episodes of the Cold War here. Afghanistan's constitutional monarchy was overthrown in 1973. In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded, fearing an Islamic resurgence throughout Central Asia. The Red Army soon became embroiled in its own 'Vietnam', while the US-funded and fractious Mujahedin ('holy warriors') recruited Muslims from around the world, including Osama bin Laden, to their ranks. The Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and, in the faction-fighting that followed, much of the country that hadn't already been destroyed was flattened.

Into this vacuum, from 1994 onwards, the Islamist Taliban ('students') gradually extended their influence, supported by the military in Pakistan and also by Saudi Arabia and the US. Ahmed Shah Massud became the focal point of an anti-Taliban alliance, which took control of the north-east. The Northern Front includes the Islamic National Movement of Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was a close ally of the Russian-sponsored rulers of Afghanistan. The most fundamentalist component is Afghanistan Islamic Unity, led by Professor Siaf.

On 9 September Massud was killed. Current speculation is that the same people who launched the assault on America two days later killed him to prevent serious opposition afterwards. Ex-King Zahir Shah is 89 years old and lives in Italy. The US reportedly wishes to see him installed in place of the Taliban. Few people think of themselves primarily as 'Afghani'; in the north the majority are Tajik, in the south Pushtun.

This is how some of the Afghanis came to be among the 433 asylum seekers on the Tampa, the Norwegian cargo ship that grabbed world headlines when it arrived at Christmas Island just a couple of months ago. By refusing to let them off, the Australian Government wanted to send a message to asylum seekers: if they try to enter Australia without going through the proper channels, they will be resisted with force if necessary. Australia’s opposition Labour Party endorsed the strategy. SAS troops duly stormed the ship to prevent the human cargo from docking, then transferred the men, women and children to the troopship HMAS Manoora.

After being turned back by the largest nation in the South Pacific, many of the Tampa passengers were taken to the smallest republic in the world. Nauru consists of 20 square kilometres dominated by an exhausted phosphate mine. At the Australian Government’s expense, 283 asylum seekers are being processed there. Kiribati has now offered to help as well.

A conservative estimate of the cost of this whole enterprise is US$35 million. Another estimate suggests that this year Australia will spend 10 times more keeping these refugees from Australian shores than it will in helping to feed and shelter the three million Afghanis in the camps of Pakistan and Iraq.

The Tampa had only just sailed from the front pages of Australian newspapers when the World Trade Center towers crumbled before the world’s eyes. The suicide bombers had suspected links, via Osama bin Laden, with Afghanistan. Some responsible political leaders asked their communities not to make a connection between the Tampa and the atrocities. But not all. A Federal Parliamentary Secretary, Peter Slipper, claimed that the link was ‘undeniable’. Defence Minister Peter Reith warned that asylum seekers could create ‘a pipeline for terrorists’. Quite right to turn these terrorists away, suggested the writers of many Letters to the Editor.

Australia’s ability to welcome Afghanis – even temporarily – is now in jeopardy. So reviled are refugees from this region in particular that, in mid-September, guards working for the private company that runs the Woomera detention centre felt at liberty to turn water cannon and tear gas on their charges, in full view of protesters gathered outside.

Stories of racial intolerance abound. In the Brisbane suburbs two mosques were firebombed and torched, and a bus transporting Muslim children was pelted with rocks, bottles and other missiles. In Melbourne, one mosque received death threats and two students of an Islamic college were thrown from a tram.

‘Australia stands with the United States and with other nations around the world in responding to [the attack on the World Trade Center],’ says Australian Prime Minister John Howard. ‘If the common bonds of democracy and belief in liberty mean anything, there can be no other response.’ Mr Howard means that if the US wants to drop bombs Australia will help – no questions asked. He is silent about taking responsibility for the consequences.

If these consequences are ignored, refugees will have no country in which to exercise their rights, no government for which they can vote and no court to protect their liberty. Their freedom will become illusory as – one by one – countries either exclude them or lock them up like prisoners.

The rhetoric of revenge is increasingly hollow. If world leaders truly want to protect freedom, democracy and liberty, then they must protect everyone – not just the citizens of the US.

Chris Richards is Australasian co-editor of the NI based in Adelaide.

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