Recent events in the UK –- a report to Parliament and a BBC documentary –- have resurfaced the plight of Pakistani Christians fleeing to Thailand in search of asylum.
What just happened
A group of members of Britain’s Parliament on 24 Feb. urged their government to adopt a harsher official assessment of Pakistan’s treatment of Christians.
The reason? The MPs say United Nations officials in Thailand, where thousands of Pakistani Christians have sought asylum in recent years, are not sufficiently concerned that Christians “face a real risk of persecution” if returned to their home country.
As a result, the MPs say, the already overwhelmed UN bureaucracy is prolonging the asylum process and too casually deporting Christians — using Britain’s current, less-than-urgent assessment of Pakistan as partial justification. Meanwhile, Christians languish for years in jobless isolation, dependent on charity and trying to avoid arrest on charges of illegal immigration.
And in Thailand, every asylum seeker, once their brief tourist visa expires, is guilty of illegal immigration: the country has never signed international agreements concerning refugees.
On 27 Feb., the BBC released a documentary that vividly reported on the Christians’ plight, including secretly obtained video footage of the dank, overcrowded Thai detention centres that hold men, women and children judged to be illegally in the country.
“The official line of the UK Government is that there is no persecution, the reality is the opposite of that and our report dispenses with that illusion.”
–Lord David Alton
Who are these MPs and what does their report say?
They are members of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief. APPGs are unofficial advisory bodies to Parliament, devoted to various topics, and open to MPs from all political parties in both houses of Parliament.
This particular report was prompted by a September 2015 visit to Thailand by Lord David Alton, a member of the upper house and a long-time human-rights campaigner. He had received information about Pakistani Christians crowded into Bangkok’s detention centres, despite the fact that they had UN certificates indicating their asylum case was under review. International law forbids detaining, on immigration grounds, anyone who has a certificate.
The bulk of the report’s 103 pages is devoted to evidence documenting how Pakistan is a dangerous place for religious minorities, including Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs, Jews and others.
During his investigation in Thailand, Alton encountered a “senior official” of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees whose staff was both swamped with thousands of asylum applications and without much reason to act with urgency:
“[I]t was made clear to Lord Alton that this individual held a negative opinion towards the Christian asylum seekers and, by referencing the [UK] Home Office Country Guidance on Pakistani Christians and Christian Converts, did not believe them to have been at a ‘real risk of persecution’ for their faith in Pakistan. Deporting them was not seen as a process dangerous to the Christian asylum seekers.”
The UK Home Office, responsible for Britain’s immigration system, currently sums up the situation for Pakistani Christians this way:
“Christians in Pakistan … in general suffer discrimination but this is not sufficient to amount to a real risk of persecution.”
That assessment is too soft, according to the report:
“Christians in Pakistan face real threats of persecution in the form of physical violence and psychological torture at the hands of State- and non-State actors.”
The report asks Parliament to instruct the Home Office to update its assessment of Pakistan, which Alton said the UNHCR in Thailand studies closely to guide its policy on Christian refugees. It also is used by the UK immigration office to help determine asylum applications from Pakistanis in the UK.
“The official line of the UK Government is that there is no persecution, the reality is the opposite of that and our report dispenses with that illusion,” Alton said in a 23 Feb. release.
Tied to Pakistan through colonial history, a large Pakistani diaspora, and £1 billion in annual aid, Britain has a deep interest in Pakistan’s internal affairs. “We should be demanding that British aid is used to protect minorities and to staunch the flow of refugees,” Alton said.
Why do Christians leave Pakistan?
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is 95 percent Muslim, and 2.3 percent Christian. According to Open Doors, a charity that provides support to Christians in places where they are under pressure, extremist Islamic parties don’t enjoy wide voter support, but anti-Christian forces are active at the grass roots. It says more than 40 jihadi groups and radical Islamic parties align under the umbrella of the Pakistan Defense Council.
Violence is a regular feature of life:
2009: Muslim rioters killed seven Christians and burned 100 homes in the north-eastern city of Gojra.
“I saved my life by hiding in a Muslim neighbour’s house,” said Ghizala Javed, 30, now in Thailand and seeking resettlement through the UNHCR.
2013: Angry mobs burned the Joseph Colony Christian slum, in Lahore. Later that year, a suicide attack on All Saints Anglican Church in Peshawar killed more than 100 people as they left worship services.
2015: Two suicide bombers killed 17 people at two neighbouring churches in Lahore.
It’s not only Christians. Jews have essentially disappeared since the country’s inception in 1947 because of its Islamization. Some Hindus leaving for India said “their shops were looted, their houses were raided and their women were forcefully converted,” reported The Tribune.
Violence against Christians frequently is triggered by accusations, almost always bogus, that someone has desecrated a Quran or has insulted the Prophet Muhammed. Blasphemy of Islam carries a minimum sentence of life in prison, with the death penalty an option. Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are widely popular among politically significant blocs of voters, even as they are criticized in world capitals as tools of Muslim intimidation.
“We miss Pakistan but we were forced to leave the country because every person is ready to accuse us of blasphemy,” said Javed, who has been granted refugee status. “There is no respect for Christians and we are without self-esteem. Because of discrimination at every level, we cannot progress in Pakistan.”
Add to that mix the fact that most Pakistani Christians work at the menial end of the economy. Child labor is pervasive.
The result: In 2011, only four countries produced more refugees seeking asylum in industrialized countries than Pakistan.
But it is not, for the most part, the poorest and most vulnerable Christians who are able to get out. Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association said most of those seeking asylum from Pakistan are professionals, who have faced blasphemy accusations and other threats to their lives. Among them are three former parliamentarians who sought asylum in the West, reportedly because they were threatened with violence.
Why are they going to Thailand?
First, there are regular, if lengthy, flights to Bangkok. Thailand is a popular tourist destination, and a 60-day tourist visa is easy to get. Second, Pakistan’s immediate neighbours – Afghanistan, China, India, Iran – are hardly any more accommodating to Christians.
How many have come? Estimates vary. In March 2015, the Jubilee Campaign, co-founded by Lord Alton, reported that around 4,000 Pakistani Christians were seeking asylum in Thailand. A month later, the Farrukh Saif Foundation put the number at about 7,000.
The UNHCR says that as of December, there were 11,500 Pakistanis seeking asylum in Thailand, a 51 percent increase from the previous year. The report issued last week in Britain’s Parliament classifies them all as Christian.
“They will have sold their possessions and homes and often had barely enough to pay for passage out to Thailand,” Chowdhry said. “In Thailand, though, they are still in a terrible state, forced to work in low-level jobs illegally.”
The difficulties are real, but at least one Christian asylum-seeker, Khalid Naaz, said Thailand is largely free of the constant fear of a blasphemy accusation in their home country.
“In Pakistan we were derogatorily called ‘chuhra’,” a term of abuse used only against Christians, “and now we don’t have to face this name-calling.”
Life in Thailand
–Mubarak Masih, a pastor seeking asylum
Most Christians settle in Bangkok, but some choose Chiang Mai and other cities.
Several asylum seekers told World Watch Monitor they dropped off their asylum applications at the UNHCR office in Bangkok in their first month. It normally takes six months to obtain asylum-seeker status. After a formal interview that takes place about a year later, they may be given refugee status.
Then begins a wait for resettlement in another country that can take years. Those years are dominated by caution, isolation, and sporadic, underground work to avoid arrest. Technically, they are breaking the law the moment their tourist visa expires. Entire families live in a single room in buildings of flats, often supported by local churches. For families with children, there is no school.
“There are 30 Pakistani families living in our building. I am really afraid and don’t know when we are going to be next,” Victoria Riaz said. “I have to work all day long because each month I have to pay the rent. Recently, I had an offer to teach Urdu in a Thai school but I couldn’t join because I don’t have a valid visa.”
Almost every family relies on supplementary financial support from relatives or a church. Sometimes they receive food, usually rice, from churches and charities. Buying flour – wheat is a staple in Pakistan – is prohibitively expensive. Those who can’t afford to buy food go to gurdwaras, Sikh temples where food is offered for free.
In February, World Watch Monitor met a young Pakistani mother (whose husband was in detention), her small child and the teenage daughter of another Pakistani family living at an international church in central Bangkok. The expatriate pastor was clearly supporting and helping them as resources allowed, but said it was difficult as the numbers were so high.
Many of those who must spend the bulk of their time in a single room, which usually does not include a bed, suffer from backache, knee pain and other muscular problems. The only activity they have at home is talking with relatives on Skype.
“Direct phone calls are very expensive from Thailand to Pakistan, so Skype is the cheapest way and also helps us kill time,” a refugee, Francis Sodagar, said.
When in public, Pakistani Christians avoid traditional Pakistani dress because they are immediately recognised and sometimes regarded as potential terrorists.
“Even taxi drivers call us ‘bomb’ and ‘Bin Laden’,” Mubarak Masih, a pastor seeking asylum, told World Watch Monitor. “Several times our people refrain to tell their country of origin because then Thai people treat us as terrorists.”
To avoid arrest, they pretend to be tourists and leave the children at home. “When they speak Urdu, their chances of arrest are higher; otherwise they are perceived as Indians,” Sodagar said. “The police especially take notice of Muslims and run a thorough check on them, so our ‘look’ could play an important role in arrest.”
The county’s famously suspect tap water is a source of abdominal pain, skin problems and other maladies; bottled water is not consistently available to asylum-seeking families. Being illegal residents in Thailand, Pakistanis find medical treatment is beyond reach and expensive. Even when they can afford a doctor visit, most Christian refugees don’t speak Thai or English. To help them, the Bangkok Refugee Centre offers weekly classes in both languages.
Burial in Thailand also is problematic: in several cases, bodies have been cremated because sending them back to Pakistan was unaffordable.
Thailand is putting aliens in jail
UN certificates or no, Thai authorities began to crack down on asylum seekers a year ago.
“The police raided our building and arrested members of one family,” Riaz recalled about a day in May 2015. She, her husband and three children waited out the raid inside their locked room.
Hundreds of Christians have been caught up in the sweeps. Four raids just before Christmas rounded up 63 Christians, most of them women and children, including 25 on Christmas Eve.
The arrested are taken to detention centres or jails. “Conditions in both are horrific,” Chowdhry said, “with massive overstaying, pitifully poor nutrition and the resultant disease epidemics.”
The secret video captured by the BBC and released this week shows hundreds of people jammed into overcrowded pens. One Pakistani who had been arrested, Thomas Masih Burrat, told World Watch Monitor that more than 200 Christians were placed in one room. Often, mothers opt to keep their children with them while in custody. The men are separated. Several have died while being held.
Some asylum-seekers, all men, have even been sent to Thai prisons, into cells with convicted criminals.
The Jubilee Campaign said in February that the Thai government had agreed to begin releasing detainees with health problems. According to the organization, the decision was prompted by the 10 Jan. death of Pervaiz Ghouri Masih, 53, whose ill health – he was afflicted with a tumor and heart condition – was exacerbated by the crowded, dirty conditions and meagre nutrition.
Christians arriving in Thailand from Pakistan “no longer fear for their lives, but face other fears like arrest, hunger and the possibility that they will never be able to live freely,” Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported.
And what about Pakistan?
Because large numbers of Christians have been leaving Pakistan, airport authorities have, on occasion, launched crackdowns, not allowing them to depart. Spotting Christians is easy: Pakistan ID cards specify a person’s religion.
Amir Riaz, pastor of the Street Evangelism Ministry of Pakistan, told World Watch Monitor that authorities prevented him from boarding a flight to a missionary tour to Thailand and Singapore in October 2014.
“The Federal Investigation Authority personnel told me that they had instructions from the government not to let Christians and Ahmadis travel to Thailand because they are not returning,” Riaz said.