By KATHY GANNON, Associated Press
QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — As he knelt in prayer to mark one of Islam's holiest days, Ali Raza Qurban saw a childhood friend and dozens of others die in a suicide attack on their Shiite mosque. Sunni militants were again targeting minority ethnic Hazaras in this city of narrow streets and wide-open hatreds.
Qurban decided it was time to leave. He found an agent who would hook him up with a smuggler in Indonesia and, for $8,000, get him to Australia.
But he never made it to Australia. He disappeared on Dec. 17, 2011, aboard an overcrowded, rickety wooden boat that capsized within hours of leaving the Indonesian shore.
Four months had passed since the suicide bombing at the mosque in Quetta, where the violence has spawned a vibrant human smuggling business. The smugglers operate out of small, unidentified shops. Selling promises of a safe and better life in Australia, they largely capitalize on the fear and desperation of the Hazara, a largely Shiite community that is facing attacks not only here but in neighboring Afghanistan.
In Quetta, Shiite leaders say many of the attacks against Hazaras are carried out by the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Janghvi, which they contend is backed by elements within Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI. Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry and a panel of three judges last month ordered authorities to investigate allegations that vehicles illegally imported by the ISI were used in suicide bombings targeting Shiites.
Most of the Afghans who cross into Pakistan with the intention of going on to Australia and elsewhere are thought to be Hazara.
"Every month hundreds of Hazaras leave Afghanistan for another country," said Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul-based Center for Strategic Studies, a privately funded think tank. In the last two months more than 20 Hazaras have died in targeted killings blamed on the Taliban, he said.
Hazaras, who were massacred by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban in the late 1990s, fear that the religious militia will return to power after the departure of U.S. and other NATO service members in 2014, according to Rahmani.
"With 2014 getting closer, most of the Hazaras think that the history will repeat again," he said. "So that is why they risk their lives for illegal immigrations to Australia and other places."
Many choose Australia because it already has an established Hazara community.
The trip to Australia usually begins in Pakistan's port city of Karachi, stopping either in Thailand or Malaysia before arriving in Indonesia's East Java province, according to testimony of survivors and local Malaysian authorities.
"Asylum seekers from Pakistan often fly either from Karachi or Lahore to Kuala Lumpur and sometimes enter through Malaysia's northern border with Thailand," said a Malaysian home ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. He said laws have been tightened in the last two years, sea patrols increased and cooperation has been stepped up with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"The people-smuggling groups that facilitate them are generally Pakistani, but Malaysians are sometimes hired for logistics to help in transportation," said the official.
Once in Indonesia's East Java, asylum seekers are packed into boats bound for Australia.
The booming business is confounding the governments of Indonesia, which has hunted down and arrested some smuggling kingpins, and Australia, which is being bombarded with more refugees than it is willing to accept. Australia is trying to discourage prospective asylum seekers with new laws and with offers to take more refugees who choose to enter the country legally.
In August, Australia reintroduced offshore processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Asylum seekers who are sent there will not be let into the country without going through the same process as those legally seeking protective asylum in Australia.
"The strategy underpins the key message that asylum seekers should think twice before getting on a boat to Australia, because they will be risking their lives at sea for no advantage," according to Australia's Department of Immigration and Citizenship.