Exodus of religious minorities

The Colombo office of the UN refugee agency reported that 1,338 Pakistanis had applied for asylum in 2013. Most of the applicants belonged to the Ahmedi community faced with relentless persecution, religious minorities in Pakistan are often left with no option but to flee to safer regions. While some are leaving this country for good, others have to resort to relocating within Pakistan. The religious minorities only constitute three percent of the country’s population and this percentage is likely to diminish if Pakistan fails to protect its vulnerable communities.

While persecuted Hindus mostly migrate to India, other minorities that cannot afford to move to western countries flee to easily accessible and relatively inexpensive countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and China. However, life can be arduous for asylum seekers in these countries. In 2014, Sri Lanka began detaining and deporting Pakistani asylum seekers. Most of them belonged to religious minorities. The UN refugee agency highlighted that Sri Lanka was deporting asylum seekers without properly assessing their asylum claims.

An increasing number of people are fleeing to Thailand because it is easy to get a tourist visa. Asylum seekers overstay their visa after the allowed duration of their visit expires. People who choose to take refuge in Thailand, where most of the asylum seekers come from Pakistan, immediately land into a plethora of problems, not least of which is that it can take years to obtain refugee status. While their applications are being processed, they cannot work legally and have to survive on charity. Some, who begin working illegally, are arrested and taken to the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) after which the only two options left are to either pay for your flight home or obtain resettlement in some other county.

Almost all religious minorities in Pakistan seem to be taking part in this enormous exodus. Ramesh Kumar Wankwani, the head of the Pakistan Hindu Council, gave a statement that highlighted that around 5,000 Hindus migrate to India each year. A large number of Christians had reportedly fled to Thailand over the last few years. Some Thailand based Christian expatriates claim that there are around 10,000 registered Pakistani asylum seekers in the country. Similarly, members of the Ahmedi community are seeking asylum in countries like Sri Lanka and China. The Colombo office of the UN refugee agency reported that 1,338 Pakistanis had applied for asylum in 2013. Most of the applicants belonged to the Ahmedi community. Many Shia sects, including Ismaili and Hazara communities, are also reportedly fleeing to avoid sectarian related terrorist attacks that are prevalent across Pakistan.

Persecuted members of some religious minorities who are not in a position to flee to other countries often have little choice but to migrate to another province. Last year, militants targeted members of the Zikri sect who had been living in relative peace for a long time, after which many of them moved from Balochistan to other parts of Pakistan. According to media reports, many Sikh businessmen are also migrating away from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where militants have been targeting them. They are moving to cities like Rawalpindi where they do not have to live in constant fear and can run their businesses in a safer environment. We have yet to see Pakistan take any action to rehabilitate such vulnerable communities.

Communities belonging to religious minorities are sometimes forced to move away from their homes temporarily to avoid violence. For example, in 2013, the whole Christian community residing in Joseph Colony, Lahore fled to other parts of the city when a mob came looking for a blasphemy accused. It was the police that had asked them to flee to save their lives. In their absence the mob burned and ransacked their houses. Other communities have also been attacked in a similar manner by mobs seeking vigilante justice. Even after these mobs have been pacified and dispersed, minorities are reluctant to return to their homes because they fear further violence and discrimination.

If we want Pakistan to be a safe sanctuary for the religious minorities that chose to stay in this county at the time of partition, then we must understand and address the maltreatment that forces them to flee their homes. Some of the biggest challenges include discriminatory laws, intolerance, militancy and lack of political will to safeguard the interests of these communities. There is an urgent need to enable all religious minorities to practice their faith freely and without fear. The onus of protecting all communities that are vulnerable because of their beliefs and preventing any further exodus is on Pakistan’s shoulders.

The writer works at the HRCP and can be contacted at obed.suhail@gmail.com


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