It’s a shameful irony that can’t be forgotten. Australia has had troops in Afghanistan since 2001, supposedly to fight terrorism and the Taliban. The Hazaras are constantly under attack by extremists and many of them must flee for a safer life. Australia may be trying to convince Hazaras not to leave but the terrible facts on the ground make that unlikely.
Wazira, a 37-year-old mother of six, abandoned her home and apple orchard in Afghanistan’s rural Wardak province last year and moved with her whole family into a single room on the fringes of the Afghan capital.
“We didn’t have any choice but to come to Kabul,” she says. “The Taliban were forcing us to prepare food for them. But if we did, the government would harass us. We were stuck in the middle.”
More than 590,000 Afghans had been displaced from their homes by fighting and Taliban threats by late August, according to the United Nations, a 21% increase since January and more than four times the number in 2006, when the insurgency began in earnest. Wazira, who like many Afghans goes by one name, is one of more than 12,000 displaced people from Wardak province alone who now share homes around Kabul, according to the U.N.
U.N. officials worry that widening violence could kick off an exodus abroad when American-led forces leave the country next year.
For those trying to leave Afghanistan altogether, the first stop often is neighboring Iran or Pakistan. Some who are wealthy or lucky enough head for Europe or Australia, which already is coping with an influx of Afghan boat people. Some 38,000 people from Afghanistan have managed to get into industrialized nations to apply for asylum last year, more than from any other country, according to the U.N., and the highest figure since the U.S. invasion in 2001.
“The desperation is incredible,” says Richard Danziger, the Afghanistan head of the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. affiliate that is helping resettle the refugees.
The bulk of Afghan migrants aim for Western Europe, according to U.N. data. Last year, about 7,500 Afghans applied for asylum in Germany, followed by Sweden, which received 4,750 applications, and Turkey, which got 4,400. Only 204 Afghans applied for asylum in the U.S.
Australia is regarded by many Afghans as a land of especially good opportunity. The number of Afghan refugees showing up on Australian beaches hit 4,256 last year, up from 118 in 2008, according to the Australian government.
“In our village, people are mainly talking about Australia: Who reached it from our village? Who sent money from Australia? How is the route?” says Ali Shah, a 60-year-old baker from the Muqur district in Ghazni province, a Taliban stronghold.
Last year, Mr. Shah fled his home with 10 family members. “Muqur is not safe,” he says. “The Taliban run their own government. They control checkpoints and administer justice.” Mr. Shah is now jobless and living in a different district. His 25-year-old son, Sabir, left Afghanistan this spring, hoping to reach Australia.
The journey to Australia often begins with a smuggler in Kabul. One such operative, who uses the name Hadi, told a Journal reporter that he charges up to $10,500 for visa and travel to Indonesia. It would cost another $5,000 to attempt to reach Australia by boat, he said. The cost means that many would-be migrants are, by Afghan standards, relatively affluent, such as small-business owners.
Many who head for Australia, including Mr. Shah’s son, belong to the ethnic Hazara minority that has been persecuted by the Taliban, and that has the most to lose should the Taliban return to power after the American withdrawal.
“All the people are worried about what will happen after 2014, and so are the Hazaras,” says Afghan Hazara leader Mohammed Mohaqeq, who is running for vice president in next year’s national elections. He survived an assassination attempt in June. “Security is getting worse everywhere,” he says.
Hayatullah Saadat, 28, an English-speaking management graduate from an Indian university, says he hopes to get to Australia next spring, by boat if necessary. “I came back from India and thought: ‘I have to help Afghanistan,’ ” he says. “But then I lost hope. Nobody is sure about their income. Nobody is sure about their life.”
The journey to Australia typically takes refugees through Pakistan or India, then Malaysia and Indonesia. Some have died on the last leg when the Indonesian fishing boats they were traveling in sank.
After Australia tightened its immigration policy, many refugees now are stranded in Malaysia and Indonesia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s conservative coalition, elected in September, is promising to use the Australian Navy to intercept and forcibly return refugee boats to other countries’ waters. His predecessor, Kevin Rudd, had instituted a policy to remove asylum-seekers to poorer countries such as Papua New Guinea to be processed and resettled there.
As a result, the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, which has long served as the starting point for the sea crossing to Australia, is becoming packed with Afghans. Some 80 refugees are living in the dilapidated Mahkota Hotel in the Sulawesi town of Makassar, one of scores of rundown residences filled with Afghans. The International Organization for Migration is paying for the housing.