Who are the Hazaras and what are they escaping?

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Hazaras are a mainly Shi’ite community, several thousand of whom have fled to Sweden in recent years to escape abuse and poverty in marginalized communities in Afghanistan and Iran.

Often singled out because of their religion, Hazaras were persecuted by the Sunni Taliban during its 1996-2001 rule in Afghanistan. Many fled to Iran and Pakistan, where rights groups say they are still persecuted.

There are around 951,000 Afghan refugees in Iran, many of them Hazaras, and 1.56 million in Pakistan, according to 2015 data compiled by the United Nations. The figures do not break down ethnic Afghan groups.

“We used to say that we had been born as something redundant, something unnecessary, into the world,” said Kasim Husseini, a Hazara who is deputy board member of the Stockholm-based Swedish Afghanistan Committee. He came to Sweden as an unaccompanied minor at age 15 in 2001.

The Committee estimates that more than 70 percent of Afghan unaccompanied minors who arrive in Sweden - of whom there were more than 23,000 last year - are Hazaras. Sweden’s Migration Agency does not break down the applications by ethnicity.

In Iran, many Hazaras have no papers but their distinctive looks mean they live under threat of deportation and risk being hassled by police for bribes, Husseini said.

Many work in places like brick factories in the suburbs of Tehran, where families are completely dependent on their bosses, he said.

Human Rights Watch has documented forced labor, police abuses and severe restrictions on freedom of movement for Afghans in Iran. It said in January that Iran had forcibly recruited thousands of undocumented Afghans in the country to fight in Syria. Some were under 18 and said they were told to fight or face deportation.

In Afghanistan, the fall of the Taliban in 2001 brought hope that Hazaras’ lives would improve. But in July, at least 80 people taking part in a pro-Hazara demonstration in Kabul were killed in bomb attacks. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

In 2013, around 60 percent of Afghans seeking asylum in Sweden were successful, Migration Agency data shows. So far this year, that rate has fallen to 20 percent.

Reporting by Alistair Scrutton; Additional reporting by Himanshu Ojha in London; Edited by Sara Ledwith