Afghan president says refugees off Australia visit agenda

Protesters with a cutout of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani demonstrate against his visit to Australia outside Government House where Ghani met with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, in Canberra Monday, April 3, 2017. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated against his visit, calling for his government to end discrimination against the Hazara ethnic minority and to refuse to repatriate asylum seekers rejected by Australia. (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
Protesters against Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's visit to Australia gather outside Government House where Ghani met with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, in Canberra Monday, April 3, 2017. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated against his visit, calling for his government to end discrimination against the Hazara ethnic minority and to refuse to repatriate asylum seekers rejected by Australia. (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
Protesters demonstrate against Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's visit to Australia, outside Government House where Ghani met with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, in Canberra Monday, April 3, 2017. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated against his visit, calling for his government to end discrimination against the Hazara ethnic minority and to refuse to repatriate asylum seekers rejected by Australia. (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
Protesters with a cutout of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani demonstrate against his visit to Australia outside Government House where Ghani met with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, in Canberra Monday, April 3, 2017. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated against his visit, calling for his government to end discrimination against the Hazara ethnic minority and to refuse to repatriate asylum seekers rejected by Australia. (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)

CANBERRA, Australia — Afghanistan's president said Tuesday he did not discuss during his Australian visit taking back asylum seekers, a prospect that mobilized hundreds of protesters who argued the strife-torn Central Asian country is too dangerous for its nationals to be forced home.

Ashraf Ghani will end the first visit to Australia by an Afghan president on Wednesday.

Hundreds of protesters came to the capital, Canberra, on Tuesday calling for Ghani's government to end discrimination against the Hazara ethnic minority and to prevent the repatriation of Hazara asylum seekers rejected by Australia.

Afghanistan signed an agreement with Australia in 2011 to accept failed Afghan asylum seekers. But repatriations have since been rare and Afghan lawmakers have spoken out against forced returns.

Ghani declined to say on Australian Broadcasting Corp. television on Tuesday whether he would be comfortable with Australia returning Afghan asylum seekers.

"I do not make these decisions as an individual. I am not entitled," Ghani said.

"Has the legal due process been completed or not? What has been our treaty? — because it's not subject of discussion, I don't have it on top of my fingers," he added.

Australia has a strict policy of refusing to allow refugees who arrive by boat to stay. Where to send asylum seekers from the Middle East, Asia and Africa who often languish in Pacific island camps for years has become a growing political headache for the Australian government.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not mention asylum seekers in his statement Tuesday on Ghani's visit.

"This historic visit has ... underscored the growing partnership between our nations and has been a valuable opportunity to discuss our ongoing security and development cooperation," Turnbull said.

Protesters had complained that discrimination was sanctioned against Hazaras, who account for most of Afghanistan's Shiite Muslims, and that conditions in Afghanistan are not safe for their return.

Ghani said the 1.2 million Afghan asylum seekers who returned from Pakistan and Europe last year demonstrated that conditions in his country had improved.

"Those people are making a judgment that the conditions are worth returning," Ghani said. "Of course, there's a push factor from the host countries, but there's also a pull factor."

Turnbull and Ghani on Tuesday signed an aid agreement worth 320 million Australian dollars ($240 million) over four years.

The two countries will cooperate on infrastructure, education and employment of women and girls, agriculture and water management, training of Afghan civil servants and anti-corruption initiatives.

Ghani thanked Australia for its sacrifice of 41 troops killed in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

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