Australia’s largely secret role in actively blocking persecuted people from escaping life-threatening situations should be exposed more often. Canberra seems happy colluding with authoritarian figures in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and beyond to “stop the boats”.
Australian authorities have increasingly turned to a strategy some find disturbing: they are taking their mission directly to countries such as Pakistan that are sources of refugees, rather than concentrating on the transit points. And in collaborating with local authorities, their efforts have gone beyond targeting people smugglers — they’re also using the powers they gain locally to directly stop the escape of asylum seekers themselves.
From a human rights perspective, Australia’s actions in Pakistan arguably cross a dangerous new line.
Australia has long thumbed its nose at its international legal obligation to provide shelter to the world’s persecuted, argues Mustafa Qadri, an Australian human-rights advocate who covers Pakistan for Amnesty International. But using local authorities to keep threatened people such as the Hazaras bottled up in Pakistan’s borders takes things much further.
“You’re looking at a population that is persecuted in the worst kind of way, and the Australian authorities appear to be effectively trying to stop them from trying to go somewhere where they will be safer. It’s pretty shocking,” Qadri says.
In Pakistan, this campaign has gone ahead with little fanfare. Since 2009, officers of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian intelligence agents have been part of an increased effort to stem the movement of asylum seekers, according to interviews with Pakistani law-enforcement officers, publicly available Australian Senate records, and annual reports of the AFP. A large part of this has involved co-operation with Pakistan’s civilian Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), which investigates crime and also manages immigration at Pakistan’s borders and ports.
In part, this co-operation — which has involved intelligence sharing, technical help and training — has been focussed on catching people smugglers. But increasingly the pressure applied by Australian authorities has resulted in Pakistan using ethnic profiling to try to seal off its borders to Hazaras trying to escape.