KARACHI, Pakistan — Shabina agreed to talk with me from the backseat of a van at a busy intersection in Karachi. She lives on the edge of the city, where it's too dangerous to meet with a foreign journalist.
“This area is relatively safer, but anything can happen in a minute so we avoid sitting in open areas,” explained her father-in-law, who had driven her to the meeting.
Relatively safer, maybe. But Shabina still didn't want to get out of the van. "There is no safety in Pakistan," she said.
Her concern is well-founded. Late last year Shabina’s husband was shot dead as he dropped off two of their children at school. In a matter of minutes, he became another statistic in Sunni extremists' campaign to cleanse Pakistan of its Shia minority.
Five Shias were killed in Karachi on that early November day. In 2013, Sunni militants claimed the lives of 471 Shias.
Among those targeted are Hazaras, a predominately Shia Muslim group easy to identify by their Mongol features. Shabina, who asked to be identified by just her first name, is one such Hazara, as was her husband. He was also the father of their five children and a lab technician at a local pharmacy.
“The killing pattern shows that they were apparently carried out on sectarian grounds,” Javed Alam Odho, the deputy inspector general of police, said at the time of the attack.
The targeting of prominent Shias has become an almost weekly occurrence in Karachi. Attacks on the community in Quetta, Balochistan, where more than 500,000 Hazaras live, are also common. On June 8, 30 Shias returning from a pilgrimage to Iran were killed in a coordinated suicide bombing in a remote part of Balochistan province, on the border with Iran.
As a result, Hazara communities have become increasingly ghettoized in parts of Quetta and Karachi, explained Sajjad Hassan, a Hazara activist based in Islamabad.
“We are now living in open air jails,” said Hassan of the community in Quetta that he fled in 2012.
So, Shabina wants to leave Pakistan. “We want safety. ... We will go anywhere in the world where it is safe,” she said.
More than 30,000 Hazaras have fled Pakistan in the last five years, estimates the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, though it is difficult to be sure of the exact number. Most leave illegally, handing themselves over voluntarily to traffickers paid large sums of money.
Shabina wants to take her children to Australia. More than a thousand Pakistanis, most of them Hazaras, made the dangerous journey there by boat in 2013, more than double the number in 2012, according to Australian government data. Hundreds — possibly thousands — more set out on the journey and never made it.
With the surge in numbers, traffickers are asking for more money. In 2009, it cost $5,000 to get to Australia — a journey that usually involves flying to Thailand or Indonesia, island-hopping to the southernmost point of Indonesia and making the final treacherous trip by boat. Smugglers now demand more than $14,000.
For Hazaras trying to escape Pakistan, the risky boat ride is just one challenge among many. Australia has tightened its immigration policy, leaving many stranded partway through their journey. Hundreds of Hazaras are believed to be stuck in squalid conditions in Indonesia at the mercy of traffickers.
Australia’s coalition government led by right-wing Prime Minister Tony Abbott began its controversial policy of turning around boats filled with asylum seekers in early January, forcing the rickety vessels back to Indonesia.
Asylum-seekers became a key election issue in Australia over the summer, with Abbott trying to appear tougher than his predecessor, Labour leader Kevin Rudd, who had introduced a policy to divert asylum-seekers to camps in Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific state of Nauru. The UN refugee agency condemned conditions at immigration detention camps there as "harsh, hot, humid, damp and cramped."
Shabina knows the journey to Australia is illegal and dangerous, but she says she knows of people who have made it and she's prepared to take the risk.
The Australian High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, placed a series of ads in local newspapers warning against seeking asylum in Australia following Abbott’s policy change. The ads explicitly state that people who arrive by boat won’t be allowed to stay.
“If you go to Australia by boat without a visa, you won't be settled there,” reads one. Below the text is an image of a solitary rickety wooden boat on an open sea.
Shabina has heard about these ads but has never seen one with her own eyes. “Instead of being killed by a bullet, it is better to die in the water,” she said.