Rachel McCarthy, July 26, 2010
We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible, otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and shall set fire to your daughter.
—A letter from the Taliban to a female teacher.
On April 9, Minister of Immigration Chris Evans announced changes to Australian immigration processing, whereby the processing of asylum applications for both Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum seekers was stopped temporarily. The press release stated, “The situation in Afghanistan is also evolving, including with respect to Afghan Hazaras. The Taliban’s fall, durable security in parts of the country, and constitutional and legal reform to protect minorities’ rights have improved the circumstances of Afghanistan’s minorities, including Afghan Hazaras.”
The governments reasoning for freezing the asylum applications of Afghans due to an apparent increase in stability and improved human rights is unfounded. Recent reports from key human rights agencies such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Afghan Rights Monitor and Minority Rights Group International—as well as the most recent report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to the Security Council in June and a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report—all note a clear danger for many, particularly women, children and Afghan Hazaras, in returning to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan continues to suffer from a pervasive culture of impunity and a weak rule of law, increasing numbers of civilian casualties, and violence towards women, children and ethnic minorities. Those fleeing Afghanistan do so for fear of persecution, violence and death. The most recent reports from these key agencies provide compelling evidence to urge the Australian government to stop the freeze on processing Afghan asylum applications.
Increasing civilian casualties
A report to the Secretary General of the Security Council in June from UNAMA stated that, overall, the number of security incidents increased significantly, compared to previous years and contrary to seasonal trends. Afghan civilians across the country still live in an environment of high-risk violence and conflict. UNAMA documented 395 conflict-related civilian casualties between April and June, a decrease of only 1 percent from the same period in 2009. This hardly signifies an increase in stability and safety for Afghans to return to.
Anti-government (Taliban) elements remain responsible for the largest proportion of civilian casualties, which rose to 70 percent from 67 percent during the past reporting period.
The report to the Security council concludes, “The overall security situation has not improved. Indiscriminate anti-government element attacks against civilian targets, government representatives and international military forces continued. The alarming trend of increased improvised explosive device incidents and the occurrence of complex suicide attacks persisted.”
Not only is Afghanistan unsafe for civilians, certain groups such as women, children and ethnic minorities are the targets of considerable violence by the Taliban and suffer constraint in access to education, jobs, human rights and security.
As the government of Afghanistan is negotiating with the Taliban and other insurgent factions on the future stabilization of Afghanistan, Afghan women continue to be under-represented and targeted by violence. After the fall of the Taliban, many women found that basic rights long repressed had been restored. They resumed their jobs, sent their daughters to school, voted, and some entered into local politics.
Since the resurgence of the Taliban and other militant groups from 2005-2006 onwards, women’s rights came quickly under attack again. A recent HRW report on women in Afghanistan notes that tradeoffs for women’s rights are being made with the Karzai government’s negotiations to halt violence.
The HRW report outlines acts of violence occurring against women at all levels of Afghan society. Female teachers and public servants have been murdered for working for the government. There are documented attacks on female journalists, politicians and human rights activists, and the Afghan government provides little specific security for these women. Sexual violence, honor killings and domestic violence are also prevalent problems for women and girls.
Women fleeing Afghanistan are doing so because they fear for their lives and safety. The current environment in Afghanistan does not promote safety for women and in particular those who speak out for women’s rights and security. Returning these women to Afghanistan, or subjecting them to lengthy waiting times for processing asylum applications is appalling policy given the situation from which they are fleeing.
The Taliban and anti-government groups continue to specifically target children, and over 420 incidents of grave child-rights violations were documented by UNAMA this year alone. 332 children were killed or maimed due to conflict-related violence. Children have been killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide attacks as well as being caught in crossfire between government and anti-government fighting.
Schools are increasingly becoming targets for attack with anti-government factions planting IEDs in them and also threatening teachers and students on countless occasions. The HRW report documents letters from Taliban leaders to female teachers, containing threats against teachers, schools and children. Despite efforts by UNAMA and the Afghan government to prevent children from entering the armed forces, the recruitment of children to the Afghan Armed forces and the Taliban continues.
A recent UNHCR report on Afghan children fleeing Afghanistan urges states to take into account the deteriorating security situation in parts of Afghanistan. Where return to Afghanistan is contemplated, it must be assessed whether this is in the child’s best interest.
Not only are children unable to safely attend school and have a stable education, they are also increasingly becoming the targets of violent attacks by the Taliban.
Hazara and ethnic minorities
The ethnic Hazara make up the second-highest number of those fleeing Afghanistan as they have come under threat and targeted violence, according to UNHCR figures. Under the Taliban, the Hazara were stripped of their basic rights, including land and food.
The Hazara are an ethnic Shia minority, and in a July 2010 report from Minority Rights Group International they were ranked as the third-most threatened minority group in the world. Hazara refugees in Australia and Afghanistan experts claim that sending back Hazaras to Afghanistan could be a “death sentence” where the Taliban continues to target the ethnic minority on religious and political grounds.
However, Mr. Evans noted that recent legislation to protect the rights of ethnic minorities in Afghanistan has improved the situation for Hazaras. The political establishment in Afghanistan is in its infancy, and such legislation cannot be enforced by the poor institutional infrastructure that currently exists. As the Karzai government attempts to decrease violence by making concessions with the Taliban, the potential for violence against the Hazaras increases. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen also suffer targeted violence as ethnic minorities in Afghanistan.
In her now-famous speech at the Lowy Institute, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that the freeze on Sri Lankan asylum seekers would stop after a report released by UNHCR and in conjunction with the government’s new policies for securing Australia’s borders. The freeze for Afghans continues and will be reviewed in the coming months. But the evidence is clear: Afghanistan is not a safe country for repatriation. If UNAMA, UNHCR and HRW are all reporting that the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, how can the Australian government freeze asylum claims on the grounds that things are getting better?