Australia’s Deadly Game
By Aubrey BelfordDecember 12, 2012
The Global Mail investigates how Australian authorities are co-operating with corrupt local authorities who bend the law to keep would-be refugees trapped in a country that they desperately want to escape.
Ali Shah was not meant to die in Pakistan. He should have already been out of the country, somewhere on the long smugglers’ route to safety in Australia.
But a bullet got to him first.
Shah was a 28-year-old from Quetta, a restive city near the Afghan border, haunted by Sunni Muslim death squads that are allied to the Taliban and which kill with near total impunity. As a Shia and a policeman, Shah was automatically in danger. As a Hazara — a Shia minority with east-Asian features distinct from surrounding ethnic groups — his face betrayed him.
Early this year, Shah paid $6,000 to smugglers, who would fly him legally to Thailand and then smuggle him over land and sea to Indonesia; once there he would search for another smuggler with a boat to Australia.
He travelled first to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and waited with five other Hazara men for a flight to Bangkok. But this plan was foiled when the smuggler returned to the men who were waiting in Islamabad, and told them the way would be blocked: airport officers would not let the men board unless they paid a hefty extra bribe to pass through. The smuggler suggested the men travel by train to Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, where a cheaper pay-off at the airport could be arranged.
At about 1.30am on April 4, the Hazara group arrived by rail in Karachi, and began to wander the streets in search of a hotel. Suddenly two men, their faces covered, pulled up on a motorbike and opened fire. Shah dropped to the ground, mortally wounded. Another man, Ismat Ullah, was shot through the leg.
Ullah watched as the men rifled through Shah’s clothes, stealing money and a phone. As they sped off, Ullah recalls, the attackers gave a clue to their motivations, yelling out “Shia are infidels!”
Months later Ullah, 25, is back in Quetta and still injured. But he says he wants to try the trip to Australia again.
“Just only one thing,” he says. “We are safe there, that’s why. We are not safe here.”
THE DEATH OF ALI SHAH sheds light on a largely under-reported front in Australia’s war to stop an increasing number of boats bringing asylum seekers from the trouble spots of Asia and the Middle East. For more than a decade, government agencies have focussed their efforts on what are termed “disruption” activities overseas. This means working with foreign governments to arrest people smugglers and cut off their funding, as well as stopping asylum-seeker boats in transit countries like Indonesia before they leave port.
But in recent years, 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.
In the same way that Hazaras’ features make them a target of jihadi killers, their ethnicity now inhibits their travel — at Australia’s apparent urging. And at the same time as Australia co-operates with Pakistani authorities, Pakistan’s powerful military is accused by locals and some security analysts of, at best, doing little to stop the killing of more than 100 Hazaras by hardline Sunni militants in Quetta this year. At worst, some elements of Pakistan’s military may be linked to extremists.
Australia’s foray into overseas disruption of people smuggling began in 2000. The Coalition government of then Prime Minister John Howard implemented a multi-agency approach to try to stop the arrival of asylum-seeker boats. It included advertising campaigns in source and transit countries, aimed at discouraging people from taking the journey. But at that time the main focus of the Coalition was on deterring arrivals via the extended detention of asylum seekers, and the “Pacific Solution” of offshore detention.
All this changed with the election of Kevin Rudd’s Labor government in 2007. Having rejected the Howard government’s detention policy, Labor was left with few deterrent options when a surge of boats began arriving in late 2008. One remaining strategy was to ramp up disruption efforts overseas. In 2009, more than $41.5 million was pledged over four years to combat people smuggling, and the AFP sent specialist officers to transit countries Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Sri Lanka and Pakistan, both source countries of refugees, also received more officers.
In 2000, there were just 10 federal police officers working solely on people smuggling. By 2011, there were 99 based in Australia, plus 10 posted overseas: six in Indonesia, and one in each of the other countries. There are also officers based overseas and within Australia who periodically work on people-smuggling issues. Since September 2008, 317 people have been convicted of people smuggling offences, both in Australia and overseas, according to Customs and Border Protection. Of these, 311 were boat crew members; six were organisers.
In Sri Lanka, authorities have during recent years been involved in a well-documented campaign to intercept and turn back boatloads of people trying to leave their waters. The Australian government argues that many of the people fleeing Sri Lanka are economic migrants, but refugee advocates argue that people blocked at sea or deported from Australian detention centres face the risk of torture or abduction on their return to Sri Lankan territory.
In Pakistan, the approach to preventing people from leaving to seek asylum is less well known — and appears to go a step further.
On the ground in Pakistan, Australia’s footprint is far larger than the limited number of officers in service suggests. The Federal Police regularly supply intelligence on alleged people smugglers to Pakistan’s FIA, as well as providing the organisation with training and technical support, according to Azad Khan, the head of the agency’s anti-people-smuggling unit in Karachi.
More controversially, Australia has in recent years also urged the FIA to block Hazaras from travelling if it suspects they intend to seek protection overseas, Khan says. In effect, this is a policy of ethnic profiling, aimed at a community that makes up a large share of asylum seekers, and who are unusually easy to pick out of a crowd.
“Definitely they do have a profiling. Anybody who thinks that he or she doesn’t have a reasonable answer that they are going to southeast Asia, they do stop them and in some cases they offload them [at airports],” Khan says, adding that the emphasis of co-operation with Australia is “on stopping” asylum seekers from departing.
Khan concedes that the policy is both morally and legally debatable. “If [asylum seekers]approach us through a court of law then we will have a problem. If you look at it from a human rights standpoint, they have a right to go anywhere,” he says.
“There’s no strictly legal regime for this.”
KARACHI IS A MAJOR DEPARTURE POINT for both Pakistani asylum seekers and Afghans — many of them also ethnic Hazaras — who have slipped across the border, often via Quetta, and obtained false Pakistani documents. To combat this flow, the AFP has been instrumental in installing a computerised system known as EDISON in Pakistani airports, which enables detection of fake passports, Khan says.
Much of the intelligence Australia supplies is gleaned from interviews with asylum seekers in Australian-run detention centres and in Indonesia, according to Khan. Australia also relays information from investigations conducted by the Indonesian National Police. While this intelligence is used to pursue people smugglers, it also has been channeled into an immigration blacklist, which effectively bars travel to suspected asylum seekers and, in some cases, to regular asylum seekers who have been detained in Indonesia.
This sort of co-operation also stretches beyond major cities such as Karachi, and into some of Pakistan’s most dangerous areas. In Quetta, the Federal Police, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and other officials from the Australian High Commission are in regular contact with local authorities to crack down on people smuggling, according to one senior Pakistani law-enforcement officer in Balochistan province, where Quetta is located. The officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also confirms the existence of the profiling policy.
“Profiling in the sense that this Hazara community, they have these, you know, salient Mongolian features if you just look at them,” he says.
There is no suggestion that the FIA is linked to the Sunni extremists who are targeting Shias. But other elements of the Pakistani state, including the powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), are widely thought to have links to militants. Pakistan’s government has done little to curb the violence in Quetta. And for Amnesty International’s Qadri, this simply makes it clearer Australia is in violation of its international legal obligations by working with them to block the escape of asylum seekers.
“I think that makes Australia actually extremely complicit [in the persecution of Hazaras],” he says.
The Global Mail submitted a list of written questions to Australian Customs and Border Protection, which takes a lead role in overseeing Australia’s whole-of-government approach to foreign people-smuggler-disruption efforts, including those of the AFP. The responses by Customs affirmed Australia’s general policy of disrupting people smuggling overseas, but did not specifically address questions relating to intelligence sharing, technical assistance or efforts by foreign authorities to block asylum seekers from leaving either transit countries or their country of origin (see the questions and responses here). A separate request for comment from the AFP was referred back to Customs.
FOR ALL AUSTRALIA’S EFFORTS in Pakistan there appears to be no change to the flow of asylum seekers leaving the country. And despite regular contacts and intelligence sharing, there have been few tangible successes.
Asylum seekers in Pakistan and Indonesia — as well as two people smugglers contacted in Quetta — describe a crackdown that has simply opened up further opportunities for bribe taking by Pakistani authorities, making the cost of seeking asylum in Australia more expensive.
One of the few successes of Australian efforts, being touted in Pakistan at the moment, is the trial in Quetta of Haji Ali Zafar, an alleged people smuggler. But one such conviction would be only a drop in the bucket in this city, which is an international hub for the smuggling of illicit goods ranging from people to weapons and narcotics.
FIA agents frequently arrest suspected people smugglers in Quetta, but release is routinely secured in return for payment, says Mustafa, a smuggler operating in the city, who asked to be identified by only his first name. “About 200,000 or maybe 300,000 [Pakistani rupees, about $2,000-$3,000] and they release them on the spot,” he says.
After expenses, Mustafa estimates he makes about $50,000 profit a year. “[It’s] not too much, because I’m spending all of them on the other ways,” he says, in broken English. “Like gambling, like spending them on the girls. Drinking them, drinking some Jim Beam.”
Mustafa estimates there are about 50 people smugglers operating in Quetta, who are part of networks that arrange passage as far as Indonesia. Part of the job of local smugglers is to co-ordinate ahead with the FIA, bribing them in order to allow asylum seekers through. The cost of the bribe needed to pass through Karachi’s airport has recently risen dramatically. Early this year, the average bribe cost somewhere between $300-$400; it is now $700-$1,000, he says.
“When we are paying them money, they never stop them. And when we are not paying them money as they required, they are sending back, even sometimes they are taking them to jail.”
This information is corroborated by another people smuggler, as well as by the experience of asylum seekers interviewed by The Global Mail. One Afghan in Indonesia, who travelled via Pakistan on false documents obtained in Quetta, says he and two other Hazara asylum seekers were blocked from travelling at Karachi airport in July.
The asylum seeker says he was instructed by an FIA officer at the airport to return to his smuggling agent, and to wait while a price was negotiated. No one appeared to have noticed his fake passport, and within a few days the bribe was settled. The people smuggler informed him it was time to start his long journey to Australia.
“They just give me the name of the counter: ‘You should just go to counter five. My guy is sitting there,’’’ the Afghan man says.