In the face of relentless violence, discrimination, harassment and persecution, Pakistani Christians are migrating from their birthplace to an uncertain world for safety and security, with thousands of them washing up in Thailand where they face situation that is hardly any more secure.
Christians make up Pakistan’s largest religious minority, with the total estimated at 2.5 million in 2005, half of them Roman Catholics and the other half Protestant. However, according to retired Bishop Alexander John Malik of the Church of Pakistan, as many as 100,000 people have fled the country in the recent past as repeated persecution worsens.
Several hundred Christians have been prosecuted under the country’s blasphemy law, which carries an automatic death sentence. Several dozen have been sentenced. Often false blasphemy charges are brought to drive Christian families off their land.
In 2009, two Christian localities were attacked in the Gojra district, in which churches and Christian houses were burnt and seven Christians, including young children and women, were burned alive. Again, in 2013, Muslims mistakenly accused an illiterate Christian man of blasphemy, which is punishable by death, and an enraged mob attacked Joseph Colony, a Christian locality in Lahore. After these violent attacks, under the fear of violence, thousands of Christians (men, women and children) left Pakistan.
Few flee to developed countries, but the majority of them head for nearby Asian countries, especially to Thailand to get refugee status through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They took flight to Thailand as it is easy to get a tourist visa and also the travel cost is not that high.
More than 11,000 Pakistani Christians are estimated to be in Thailand now. However, life is still hard for them. Those who have arrived for resettlement have found themselves at the dead end because they are not recognized as refugees and have no rights. Asylum seekers must wait up to three to five years for their cases to be processed by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
Unfortunately, Thailand is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, so asylum seekers are not protected. At arrival, they don’t get a long-term visa or refugee status. They only get a tourist visa for less than a month. Renewal of the visa is expensive and complicated. Delay in asylum cases causes visa expiration and because of that they are considered illegal immigrants.
Therefore, time and again, hundreds of these asylum seekers have been arrested by the local police. They are chained and put in jail. There is no exception for women and children. In some cases, children are taken from their mothers when their mothers are sent to jail. Some asylum seekers are locked up in the cells with criminals.
Money is needed to be paid to be granted a bail. The cost of the bail is usually about £900 (US$1,280). However, since they are not allowed to work, they have no means of making money to pay for bail. There are cases in which some die in jail. After getting bail they put in detention centers.
Despite having UNHCR documents, the UNHCR is unable to protect the refugees from arrests. Due to not being allowed to work, it is hard to survive for years on their own resources during the waiting time of their asylum applications. They live in overcrowded rooms and struggle to meet their daily needs. In those extreme difficult circumstances, they are vulnerable to violence, extortion and bribery.
According to the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, UK, “These asylum seekers often live in a desperate state of poverty with little or no access of job opportunities, education and healthcare.”
Locally, a few charities, mainly church based organisations and individuals, have been helping these helpless people, but the situation is grave and the need is huge.
Although, Thailand is not the signatory of the refugee convention, it still has an obligation to treat these asylum seekers humanely as it is a signatory of other international laws, which provide protection to asylum seekers.
Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of the Minority Concern of Pakistan magazine and former National Executive Secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan.