Forced to flee Afghanistan, the struggle of many refugees does not end there

‘The return of the Taliban meant a return of terror for the Hazara people.’

Surraya, whose name means ‘Brightest Star’, is a 33-year-old Afghan Hazara woman currently living as a refugee in Pakistan. Born to refugee parents who fled to Iran following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, Surraya and her family returned to their country in 2004 in hope of peace, security and development.

And, for a decade and a half, while she and members of her fellow Hazara community did face some challenges and discrimination, those hopes seemed genuinely within reach.

Surraya’s home city of Herat was small and conservative, however that did not stop her elder sisters from entering employment, one in the UN and another in the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. When she finished high school, Surraya followed in their footsteps with jobs in Italian Cooperation, the International Organization for Migration and on USAID projects.

She told us: ‘Gradually we were building our lives and settling in Herat. We started everything from scratch and were slowly building a promising future for ourselves… Life was just going as we wished, but not for long. Then everything changed over a night.’

On 15 August 2021, following the withdrawal of the US military, the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban took control of the country’s capital. The Taliban promised that it would not ‘seek revenge’ on anyone, however these assurances swiftly fell into doubt with reports of disturbing and credible allegations of house-to-house searches, summary executions, forced marriages, enforced disappearances and the killings of members of ethnic minority communities.

Surraya had grown up with friends who told her of the horrific treatment of the Hazara community during the Taliban’s previous tenure in power. The community suffered at least nine massacres in the late 1990s, including the Mazar-e-Sharif massacre of August 1998 in which at least 2,000 people were murdered in what witnesses described to Human Rights Watch at the time as a ‘killing frenzy’.

Just a month prior to the takeover in 2021, the Taliban murdered nine Hazara men from 4 to 6 July in Mundarakht, Malistan district. There were also significant concerns for women and girls, and for those who had worked with international organisations prior to the takeover and would likely be seen as traitors.

‘We were Hazara and ladies, who were working with international communities. When Kabul fell, we packed our clothes and fled.’

Like the majority of the Hazara people in Afghanistan, Surraya and her family fled to neighbouring Pakistan, but their struggle does not end there. The government of Pakistan has not granted the Hazaras legal refugee status, and many have spent months without access to medical treatment, clean drinking water, electricity or any means of acquiring food.

Some have since found homes to rent, often with six to eight families per house, thanks to the kindness of Pakistani citizens, however with no access to employment Surraya and others like her are fearful of how they will manage rents and expenses in the future.

The Hazara community is not alone. CSW’s latest report on religious minorities in Afghanistan finds that the majority of the estimated 10,000-12,000 Christians in the country, most of whom are converts from Islam and therefore viewed as ‘apostates’, have also been forced to flee, while those that remain live with the risk of being killed if discovered.

The Ahmadi Muslim community is also viewed as heretical by the Taliban, and only 450 are believed to remain in the country today, forced to practice their beliefs in private. Meanwhile, in September 2021, Zebulon Simentov, the last member of the Jewish community in Afghanistan, fled the country. He had lived under the previous Taliban regime, but this time he was warned that an even more extremist groups could murder or abduct him.

Afghanistan has become a dangerous place for anyone who does not adhere to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, but those who have fled have found little security in the countries that should be providing them with asylum.

‘I am an Afghan Hazara girl trapped in the loop of displacement who is seeking safety and peace’, Surraya explains. ‘I was born a refugee in Iran, and I am afraid that in the future, my children will have the same destiny. What we wish for is a permanent homeland where we can open our suitcases and never have to pack them again.’

The international community must do all it can to make this a reality for Surraya and others like her; first, by ensuring that refugees are allowed to move forward with their lives in an environment that is free of persecution, discrimination and the deprivation of fundamental rights, and second by holding the Taliban to account over its treatment of women, girls and ethnic and religious minority communities.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley

Click here to read CSW’s new report ‘From the darkest day into the night: The plight of refugees fleeing Afghanistan’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s