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Vigil in Federation Square, with Kabul in lightsOn 23 July 2016, a peaceful protest by Hazaras in Afghanistan ended in tragedy. At least 80 people died, and more than 230 were injured, in a bomb blast. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Since then, there have been further attacks directed against Hazara Shia, including on 11 and 12 October 2016, and on 21 November 2016.

In the opinion of a leading expert on Afghanistan, Professor William Maley of the Australian National University, these attacks have profound implications:

They demonstrate a capacity on ISIS’s part to strike targets close to power centres where the presence of Afghan security forces is relatively strong; in the light of ISIS’s claims of responsibility, they put on display a commitment to attack on the basis of religious identity, plainly engaging one of the bases of refugee status under Article 1.A(2) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; and they highlight particular dangers for Hazaras, who are overwhelmingly Shiite, are physically distinctive because of their East Asian phenotypes, and make up the vast bulk of the Shiite component of the Afghan population.

These events make it, according to Professor Maley, ‘completely untenable’ to claim that Hazaras are not currently being systematically targeted because of their religious identity.

In September 2016, the Department of Foreign Affairs claimed, in a Thematic Report specifically prepared for protection status determination purposes, that in respect of the 23 July attack, ‘it is too early to say whether this attack was an isolated incident, or if it represents a change in modus operandi of insurgents by introducing a sectarian dimension to attacks’. In Professor Maley’s opinon, the subsequent attacks make it equally untenable to depict the 23 July attack as an ‘isolated incident’.

Professor Maley also points out that it is ‘simplistic and superficial’ to assume that Hazaras can be safely returned to Kabul, especially where they do not have strong social connections.

Professor William Maley is also a Board Member of the Refugee Council of Australia. This was originally published on 28 July 2016 and was last updated on 30 March 2017.