The Hazaras

By Julian Burnside AO QC

By Julian Burnside AO QC. This article is part of our December 2012 and January 2013 focus on Asylum Seekers.

Since about 1998, a significant proportion of boat people coming to Australia have been Hazaras from Afghanistan or Pakistan.

On 26 August 2001, the Norwegian cargo ship MV Tampa rescued the passengers of a small boat called the Palapa. The Palapa was breaking up in moderate seas in the Indian Ocean. The captain of the Tampa reckoned there might be 50 or 60 people on the Palapa. As it happened, there were 438 of them, most of whom were Hazaras from Afghanistan. The Tampa was denied entry into Australian waters; but in defiance of then Prime Minister John Howard, the Tampa sailed into the waters off Christmas Island and into Australia’s legal and political history. In response, the Howard Government set up the Pacific Solution.

It is mute testimony to their fear of the Taliban that a number of Hazaras have tried a number of times to get here by boat, despite the dangers of the voyage

After the allied invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, and the overthrow of the Taliban, the Howard Government forced a number of Hazaras to return from Nauru to Afghanistan. Most fled immediately to Pakistan. Some returned to their villages in Afghanistan. Some of them have since been killed by the Taliban who, though no longer in government, nevertheless have substantial power in Afghanistan. The fate of Hazaras returned to Afghanistan from Nauru has been well documented by the Edmund Rice Centre, in their compelling report Deported to Danger.

In recent times, Hazaras from Afghanistan still form one of the major groups of boat arrivals in Australia seeking asylum. It is mute testimony to their fear of the Taliban that a number of Hazaras have tried a number of times to get here by boat, despite the dangers of the voyage. (Presumably, the Expert Panel and the Gillard Government think that Australia can so mistreat boat people as to make coming to Australia look more alarming than staying home and facing the Taliban).

The Hazaras arrived in Afghanistan seven or eight hundred years ago. Most people remember that in February of 2001 the Taliban demolished the great Bamiyan Buddhas. These two enormous Buddhas were hewn into the cliff face by Hazaras six or seven hundred years ago, because when the Hazaras arrived in Afghanistan they were Buddhist.

Today Hazaras are easily recognised, because they are distinctly Asian in appearance. They are thought to be the descendants of Genghis Khan. They have been targeted by the Pashtun majority in Afghanistan for a long time, certainly since the time of King Abdurrahman in 1854, but they are especially persecuted under the Taliban.

The Taliban, who are all Pashtun, are Sunni Muslim. The Hazaras converted to Islam a long time ago, but they embraced Shi’a Islam. The divide between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims has an unhappy similarity to the divide between Catholic and Protestant Christians. In Afghanistan, and increasingly in lawless areas of Pakistan, relations between the two Muslim groups bring to mind the oppression of Roman Catholics in late 16th and early 17th century England, or more recently in Northern Ireland.

And so we have the unfortunate spectacle of a religious minority who are hated by the religious majority, who look physically different and, adding a historical resonance, Hazara men are circumcised.

Pashtun animosity of the Hazaras increased during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Hazaras had traditionally been excluded from higher education (girls were not allowed to be educated at all), but the Soviets thought all people should be entitled to an education. The Hazaras welcomed this and sided with the Soviets.

The Americans, in pursuit of their goal of ousting the Soviets, set up a fighting force and armed them. They were the Taliban, drawn from the Pashtun majority. The Taliban thus have historical, political and religious reasons for hating the Hazaras, and they have been peculiarly brutal in their assault. On 8 August 1998 the Taliban occupied Mazar-e Sharif. They conducted a murderous spree which lasted three days and killed at least 2000 Hazaras.

In the years since, there have been many reported instances of attacks by Taliban on Hazaras, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, especially Quetta.

© Times of Pakistan (

© Times of Pakistan (

The city of Quetta lies just over the border which separates Afghanistan from Pakistan. It is part of the territory (the Hazarajat) which was traditionally occupied by Hazaras before English cartographers created Afghanistan and, later, Pakistan. It is natural therefore that many Hazaras move from Afghanistan to Quetta. One part of Quetta is largely a Hazara ghetto. But the Taliban are increasingly uncontrolled in Pakistan, and Hazaras who live in Quetta face the daily risk of being killed by a suicide bomber or shot by a Taliban sniper.

Three Hazara friends of mine (who came here as boat people but are now Australian citizens) recently went to Quetta to visit family members. They returned to Australia shocked by what they had seen: they could scarcely go outside, for fear of snipers; when they ventured out to the market, they saw small posters on every power pole identifying Hazaras who had recently been killed by snipers. They saw taxi drivers refuse to pick up Hazaras, for fear of being caught in an ambush.

Recent news reports tell a consistent story. In June 2010, at least nine Hazara men were killed in an ambush in a remote area of central Afghanistan that is largely controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack. According to Afghan security officials, the attack occurred in a mountainous part of south-eastern Uruzguan Province that is not under government control, and it was reportedly motivated by the perception that Hazaras act as spies and informants to the international military forces in the area. Just this year, on 10 January 2013, there were murderous attacks on Hazaras in Quetta.

Recently the Taliban have declared it their duty to kill Hazaras. The Taliban are engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Hazara people. As a result, many Hazaras have left Afghanistan; north to Iran, east into Pakistan, or (using people smugglers) to Europe, America or Australia.

It has been estimated that the Hazara population in Afghanistan has reduced from 20 per cent to less than 10 per cent over the past 15 years.

Allied forces have announced that they will withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. It is a certainty that Taliban attacks on Hazaras will increase uncontrollably when that happens.

It is equally tragic to see our national character being damaged by a Labor Government which does not have the political spine to tell it as it is: to point out to voters that there is a better way

What can we do? Australia receives very few refugees: even an annual arrival rate of 20,000 boat people would be a low number by international standards. As it happens, the last time we got as many as 20,000 boat people in a year was in the late 1970s, when the Fraser Government received between 20,000 and 25,000 Indo-Chinese boat people each year for a few years. It is a measure of recent politics that the arrival of the Indo-Chinese boat people caused virtually no fuss back then, when Australia’s population was smaller and Australia was less rich, but our political standards were higher. Of course, these numbers need to be assessed against the vast size of our continent; against our permanent migration figures of 200,000 plus per year; and against our great wealth. And perhaps we should assess ourselves against Greece, which has a population about half of Australia’s, is in great economic trouble, and has just offered to receive 20,000 Syrian refugees.

When boat people survive the perils of the sea and arrive on our shores, the great question for Australia is: how should we respond? In the past decade or so, our answer to that question has been: detain them, send them somewhere remote, frighten them off. This response has positioned us as selfish and cruel.

Despite its populist rhetoric about boat people, the Labor Government has found itself in a bind recently: the new Pacific Solution, with its cynical “no advantage” component, has failed. Numbers of boat arrivals have not fallen; detention centres are full, and the present capacity of Manus Island and Nauru makes it impractical to send more boat people there.  So a number have been released into the community on bridging visas. At present there are more boat people in the community on bridging visas than there are in detention. This has not caused society to break down; it has not resulted in any discernible problems. In this there may be a clue to a sensible – and decent – way of dealing with boat people.

If I could re-design the system, it would look something like this:

  • Boat arrivals would be detained initially for one month, for preliminary health and security checks, subject to extension if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer;
  • after initial detention, they would be released into the community, with the right to work, as well as Centrelink and Medicare benefits. Even if none of them got a job, it would be cheaper than keeping them locked up;
  • the asylum seekers would be released into the community on terms calculated to make sure they remained available for the balance of their visa processing;
  • during the time their visa applications were being processed, they would be required to live in rural or regional areas of Australia. Any government benefits they received would thus work for the benefit of the rural and regional economy. There are plenty of towns around the country that would welcome an increase in their population.

It would take a bit of political selling, although I suspect that rural and regional Australia would be quick to see the benefits of this new approach. The National Farmers’ Federation estimate that there are currently 96,000 unfilled jobs in country areas.

It should not be too hard to persuade the community that we can do better than we are doing now. The present system is supported by lies. Of course criminals should be treated as criminals. But when you see that boat people are not criminals it is more difficult to understand, much less accept, our treatment of them.

I believe most Australians are decent, generous people. Our record in both world wars stands as a tribute to our national character; our response to the Asian tsunami is another. It was tragic to see our national character brought down by the Howard Government’s deceptive rhetoric about boat people (most of it calculated to win back voters who had drifted to One Nation). It is equally tragic to see our national character being damaged by a Labor Government which does not have the political spine to tell it as it is: to point out to voters that there is a better way; that we are better than this.

Julian Burnside AO QC is an Australian Barrister and an advocate for the human rights and fair treatment of asylum seekers.


  • David Donaldson

    Nice article. The only thing is, I thought it a bit strange mentioning that Hazaras are circumcised. Surely Pashtun men are also circumcised, as are all Muslim men?

  • Catherine Mpofu

    Yes we are better than this and its time to act upon it.

  • cameron

    Your care for the vulnerable and persecuted people is admirable and welcomed. but the information you presented on hazaras and Afghanistan is shockingly ignorant and misinformed. You better write responsibly.

  • Jamshid

    I wonder if the Hazara would say that we were forced to accept Islam, and we would like to resume our Buddhism once again. For God sake, it is all non sense. Based on what evidence the author dare to say ” The Taliban, who are all Pashtun…” I would like to remind Julian, the author, if you are running out of topics i will show you an extremely interesting topic, that is, the the rights of aboriginal Australians. In this article, you have made illusive stories, however if you look for stories on indigenous people of Australia, i’m sure you find heartbreaking real stories. Those who don’t have any clue regarding Hazara luxuries life in Afghanistan they might feel sorry for them. Because the way the author has illustrated their life, one should do so. But believe me, the emerging power of Hazara in Afghanistan is remarkable. 100% Hazra are employed in Afghanistan. Iran are fueling them with abundant financial aid. The vice president of Afghanistan, Khalili who is Hazare are providing them enormous opportunities ranging from education to employment. And so do their MPs, and religious leader. The area where most Hazara are residing is the most safe and protected area of Afghanistan. I’m neither Hazara nor Pashtun. I am ethnically Tajak. Indeed, I found the above article 100% untrue, if it was realistic at least the author would have provide a single source or reference, as Julian goes on history…..

  • K. H

    Thank you for your great concerns and being so understanding about Asylum Seekers, clearly, if your life is not at risk you won’t put yourself in danger to travel to Australia by boat which is clearly a confirmed death at most cases.

    This article focus on Hazaraz ethic only however both Hazaras and Pashtuns are victims of each other, did you know about the last year conflict between Hazaras and Kochis in Kabul? did you know Hazaras put fire on their houses? I don’t respect either of them when they are creating risk for each other as the meaning of life is not to kill each other but it is to respect and love.

    If we refer to the past when the war started in Afghanistan, both Hazars, Tajiks and Pushtuns killed each other and equally toke part in destroying everything in the country.

    I am neither Hazara nor Pashtun but as an Afghan I can comment on this that the problem is not only from one end. It is also true that at the current government of Afghanistan, the Hazaras are given key positions in the government which I appreciate whoever is behind this.

    I am also an asylum seeker in Australia, coming to this country from a reasonably good life, being father of two young children a son and a daughter. I knew how difficult life will be for me in Australia because I had traveled to Australia in the past and had met Asylum Seekers, but when it came to the matter of my life I left everything behind and made it legally to Australia and almost three months since I have given my asylum seeking interview.

    As I am physically fit and am a normal person, I never wanted to be a burden on the Australian community. I have extensive work experience and good qualification. I decided to do whatever contribution I can in Australia, I therefore started to look for a job, it is not always very easy for newly arrived migrants to get good jobs in Australia but I got a permanent job with an Australian University and today I enjoy it when I see I work in a key sector of this country and make contribution towards the goal of Australia to make its education reputation top in the world.

    I value and understand the great people of Australia and respect them so much for giving us the chance to live in this peaceful country, coming to Australia has changed my whole life and the way I am looking at things now. Although I miss my kids and wife so much but I have a hope to bring them one day to Australia and have my children grow in this peaceful country. Anyone who is a father or mother can understand me how hard it is to be away from your children and spouse?

    I have so much great things to say about Australia and Australians! I have worked with Americans, Europeans, Asians …

  • The only question that pops up in my mind is that “Why does Julian take a pro-Hazara rhetoric only ?”. All the stuff you have mentioned in your article are half truth. I respect your feelings for Asylum Seekrs but it does not mean at all to write down false statements, I do believe that all Afghans have suffered through the three decades of war but I still do’nt understand why do you take one side. For God sake, look at the news, you will find dozens being killed everyday in Afghanistan, not even single of them belong to Hazara ethnicity. Hazara enjoy the most prosperity throughout Afghanistan, they live in province where Taliban are not present at all.
    My Advice will be to look at the facts around you and then write something worthwhile.

  • I. J

    As an Afghan Hazara refugee, I agree on how great Australia has been for Afghan refugees and appreciate your effort on expressing this view on behalf of all Afghan refugees. However, and I quote, “both Hazaras and Pashtuns are victims of each other, did you know about the last year conflict between Hazaras and Kochis in Kabul? did you know Hazaras put fire on their houses? I don’t respect either of them when they are creating risk for each other as the meaning of life is not to kill each other but it is to respect and love.

    If we refer to the past when the war started in Afghanistan, both Hazars, Tajiks and Pushtuns killed each other and equally toke part in destroying everything in the country. ”
    These comments of yours do not show an insight of the history of struggle in Afghanistan. As the article clearly states that Hazaras in Afghanistan have been victims of genocide for most of the recent history specially under the rule of Abdurrahmaan. When the soviets abandoned Afghanistan and left a power vacuum behind, off course all major ethnic groups including Hazaras will try their best to take some political control to avoid history repeating it self. During the rule of Taliban, Hazaras were brutally killed for no reason other than being Hazara and Shia. This was the main reason Hazara leaders specially Mazari and groups such as Hizb Wahdat had to form to fight back and protect Hazaras.
    As you said in you comment that both Pashtuns and Hazaras killed each other and don’t live with respect and love. You have to bare in mind that you can only live with respect and love if the other party is not trying to cut your head off or shoot you in public because of your ethnicity or religious belief.

    You also mentioned the recent conflict between Hazaras and the Kochis in Kabul. From what I know and what i have heard from the people who lived in the Hazara village that was destroyed by the Kochis, It was the Kochis who caused the conflict by kidnapping girls from the Hazara Village.

    You are an educated man but if you have ever lived in Afghanistan you should have a better understanding of the situation.

  • Farid Khan

    “These two enormous Buddhas were hewn into the cliff face by Hazaras six or seven hundred years ago, because when the Hazaras arrived in Afghanistan they were Buddhist.”

    Julian Burnside need to get his facts right. Archaeological evidence shows that the two Buddhist statutes were build prior to Changez Khan and the Mongol invasion. In fact these statues were built 1700 years ago by Afghans known as Gandahara (a Greco-Buddhist) people of Afghanistan and the Hazaras had nothing to do with them.

    It is sad to see a human right lawyer vilifying the Pashtun ethnic group as terrorist or fundamentalist when in fact the same group of people have been the victim of terror and international conspiracy.

  • Robert

    With pashtoons and tajiks controlling over 99% of the countrys recources and coalition leaving at the end of 2014 it is just about the time to see the endless discrimination and mass killings of hazaras again. The pashtoons and tajiks have started a ccampaign in the media to paint a very rosy picture of hazaras situation in afghanistan for now.

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  • Turkistan

    The hazaras are no dought the most persecuted people in afghanistan they are turko mongol peolpe consisting about 20% population on relligious beliefs they are majority shia they have got a large number of ismailis and sunnos n also few new christian converts. The tajiks of afghanistan has been worse for hazara than the pushtoons.. Tajiks have been two faced for their entire history baz pashatin ham az khar kamtar nesta longlive hazara, turkmen, kazakh. Uzbek, tatar n marg ba dgai aqwam

  • Some comments of sunni tajiks & other sunnis are sounds so racist & full of hatred against Hazara people, pustoons & tajiks are all Sunnis so they has no difference in their view against Hazaras. Hazara people people are much more educated & broad minded than all the sunnis living around them. The sunni terrorists whom are murdering peaceful Hazara people are funding & supporting by extremists sunni dominated countries e.g Saudi Arabia, Qatar, pakistan etc. Its quite clear that pushtoom , tajiks etc can not tolerate or stand the Rapid progress of Hazara in Educational field & All other areas. Australia should understand & realize this serious matter that Hazara People been persecuted & murdered by sunni terrorists for more than a Century in Afghanistan & Pakistan & need to be accepted .

  • qamber ali

    hazaras never sided with the soviets they fought the soviets bitterly. your article is too sketchy and full of half truths, as most of the comments have pointed out. you need to be more responsive while commenting on the serious and sensitive issues