By Aftab Alexander Mughal
Due to relentless violence, discrimination, harassment and persecution, Pakistani Christians are migrating from their birthplace to an uncertain world for safety and security. They are leaving their homes, jobs, identity and family members behind to start a new life somewhere else as they feel that their motherland is not accepting them. Retired Bishop Alexander John Malik of the Church of Pakistan said that some 100,000 people left Pakistan in the recent past, as repeated persecution is worsening in Pakistan.
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 accused an illiterate Christian man for blasphemy and an enraged mob attacked on Joseph Colony, a Christian locality in Lahore, Pakistan. 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 flee to 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 in Thailand now. However, life is still hard for them. Those who arrived in Thailand for resettlement, found themselves at the dead end because they are not recognised as refugee and have no rights over there. Asylum seekers have to wait up to 3 to 5 years for their case to be processed by the UNHCR (United Nations’ refugee agency). Unfortunately, Thailand is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, so asylum seekers are not protected over there. 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. The most tragic part is that 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. 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 a detention centre.
Despite having UNHCR documents, the UNHCR is unable to protect them 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 application. 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, there are few charities, mainly church based organisations and individuals, who have been helping these helpless people, but the situation is grave and the need is huge.
Though, 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.
Christians are only 1.6 percent of the total population of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
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.