Packing their bags: Christians moving to Thailand to escape violence, insecurity

Published: July 15, 2014
There are no official figures but community members and activists say that thousands of Christians have left Pakistan and are seeking asylum in other countries.PHOTO: REUTERS

There are no official figures but community members and activists say that thousands of Christians have left Pakistan and are seeking asylum in other countries.PHOTO: REUTERS

KARACHI: It was on a warm October day that human rights activist Noel Alfonce received a call. A man simply asked him to stop his work or his 10-year-old daughter would suffer the consequences.

With a heavy heart, nearly six months later, he left his home and country behind for good.

“I wouldn’t have been bothered had they threatened me, but when it comes to your children, you sometimes have to take harsh decisions,” said the balding man, speaking over the phone from a busy marketplace in Bangkok as Thai announcements blared in the background.

The ‘crimes’ that forced him out of the country were helping victims of forced conversions and their families and visiting the burned down and bullet-riddled churches after they were attacked. His actions irked the wrong people, and Alfonce, who had been working at the National Commission for Justice and Peace for the last four years in Karachi, had to wind up his work and leave.

Mass migration

There are no official figures but community members and activists say that thousands of Christians have left Pakistan and are seeking asylum in other countries.

From Karachi, many Christian families have fled silently; from Dastagir, Pahar Ganj, Mianwali Colony, Akhtar Colony and Essa Nagri. A majority of them opt for Thailand, which offers cheap airfare and easy access to tourist visas.

“Apart from personal attacks and threats, the Badami Bagh incident in Lahore and the church bombing in Peshawar have led to an increase in migration of Christians. Unemployment and lack of security are making them leave,” said former parliamentarian and minority representative Michael Javed.

But Alfonce, whose bike was riddled with bullets when he spoke against a church attack in Karachi’s Mianwali Colony in 2012 and received death threats in September of last year after he condemned the killing of a Christian accused of blasphemy, has no one to share his grievances with.

“Who do I complain to? The government has no writ and it is the terrorists who are in control now,” he said.

With a quivering voice, he added, “I don’t know what I will do when my savings run out next month. I don’t know how we will survive.”

Preparing to move

For several months, 40-year-old Aslam Masih, a sweeper at the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, had made up his mind to emigrate.

Last December, when a PMT crashed down near his house in Taiser Town, plunging the Christian colony into darkness, his decision was made.

“We had no light, no gas, no water. We had no better jobs. We were living like animals,” he said, also speaking from Thailand over the phone.

A pastor, Moazzam, who had helped several Christians move to Thailand, was contacted and paid Rs100,000 to arrange for the travel of six family members of Aslam; for their visas, their tickets and their documentations.

In order to arrange the amount, Aslam sold the house that he had built on the plot he received from authorities after being relocated from Lyari.

His father, Mahar Bahadur Masih, who decided to stay back in Pakistan, did not want his son to leave. “I tried to stop him but he would say to me, ‘Bhool jaye Pakistan ko [Forget Pakistan]’. Now my other son wants to go as well. I have no incentives to offer them in order to try and stop them from going.”

In the gutter-ridden lanes of Essa Nagri, Pastor Rafaqat Sadiq of The United Presbyterian Church of Pakistan has written five support letters and sent several emails to churches in Thailand. “I issue letters to the families that have migrated so that our churches there help them with accommodation and food,” he said.

To strengthen their cases, asylum seekers sometimes also get fake cases registered at police stations, bribing officers Rs20,000 to do so, claimed Sadiq.

Life in Thailand is no bed of roses

Christian representatives in Thailand claim that there are 10,000 registered Pakistani asylum seekers, a majority of them Christians and the remaining mostly Ahmadis and Shias.

But life in the country famous for its beaches and tourist spots is far from rosy for asylum seekers.

Upon reaching Thailand, they file an asylum application to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and then wait patiently. They live in single-room apartments, or condos, often in cramped and crowded areas of Thailand.

“Life is not easy at all. We are stuck here. We can’t work. I have seen Pakistanis begging on the road, asking money from foreigners. The asylum process takes a very long time,” said Alfonce. The former human rights activist, who is volunteering at a church school, has an interview set with the UNHCR in February 2016. He has been lucky; people have been known to be given dates in 2019.

“After the interview, the UN will decide whether we qualify for asylum in another country or not. Till then, we are to support ourselves on our own,” he said.

With the visit visa lasting only two months, people often dodge the Thai police, or pay bribes, in order to avoid being arrested for illegally staying in the country.” Seventeen Pakistanis were arrested just last week and sent to an Immigration Detention Centre,” he said.

But for some, the harsh conditions are still preferable to those in Pakistan. Aslam’s eldest daughter, Parveen, who has a technical diploma, said that she can easily go out with her sisters and travel freely. “There is no danger to our lives here. I feel safe here. I don’t want to go back,” said Parveen.

Hoping for a better life

With many of the minority’s migrants being social workers and pastors, a human rights activist, also wants to leave.

“My husband faced a blasphemy case when the landlord accused him of discarding Islamiat books. The case was settled when our neighbours supported us. But this is scary and alarming. I want to leave now,” said the Christian woman, not wanting to be named.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan chairperson Zohra Yusuf said that the state has failed to stand up for minorities. “It is unfortunate and sad that the minorities are leaving the country as they are being persecuted.” On the other hand, former parliamentarian and minority representative Michael Javed feels that incidents of Christians leaving the country are not being given importance. “When Hindu families were leaving Pakistan, everyone was raising the issue. But why are they silent over our migration? Are we not also citizens of the country?”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (46)

  • Parvez
    Jul 15, 2014 - 4:06AM

    When the State uses religious extremist as an instrument to further State policy……….what do you expect.


  • ModiFied
    Jul 15, 2014 - 4:14AM

    Pakistanis should realize that these very people will contribute to anti-Pakistan lobbies in the countries where ever they finally settle. In the end Pakistan will be the looser.


  • Genesys
    Jul 15, 2014 - 4:41AM

    This is inevitable and will only esclate in days to come,not just christians but other relgious denominations as well.Pakistan will then be a land for sunnis only becasue as muslims even shias and ahamdis are not safe either


  • salman
    Jul 15, 2014 - 8:20AM

    Everyone wants to leave Pakistan. Whats so hue and cry in this by signaling out Christians here ?Recommend

  • Jaani
    Jul 15, 2014 - 8:37AM

    The idea of Pakistan was a farce, the founding fathers should have seen religious intolerance coming from miles away.


  • Mr Khan
    Jul 15, 2014 - 8:46AM

    Thailand? Have they read a newspaper? There is a military coup going on in Thailand with massive unrest. Red shirts and yellow shirts anyone?


  • amir jafri
    Jul 15, 2014 - 9:29AM

    How many Christians and Parsis participated in the Independence movement…Can anybody name some names who went to prison or suffered during this period…post or pre-1857.

    Doing some research…would be thankful if someone responds.


  • u
    Jul 15, 2014 - 9:30AM

    This won’t last long. The Thais will crackdown and these guys will stop going abroad. The Australian government has set a precedent with its extremist treatment of asylum seekers. Other countries will soon follow suit.


  • Rana Ajeet
    Jul 15, 2014 - 9:57AM

    Formation of Pakistan is the of cause of Religious intolerance.


  • Jul 15, 2014 - 10:37AM

    An absolutely valid comment about how some people for their vested interests are maligning the entire nation is blocked by ET AGAIN.


  • Muhammad Rizwan Ali
    Jul 15, 2014 - 11:10AM

    Good article by writer, we need to protect all minorities, as advised by Qaid e Azam…


  • Jul 15, 2014 - 11:13AM

    I am sorry but this is not just a case of Christians/minorities fledgling the country, it is unfortunately just another way of economic migration.

    Things are definitely not the best for anyone in the country but this is just plain selfish. But then again perhaps that is what we all are in the end.


  • Proletarian
    Jul 15, 2014 - 11:39AM

    Good for Thailand. Bad for Pakistan.


  • Patriot. N
    Jul 15, 2014 - 11:57AM

    Not peculiar to Pakistan only. It is worst prosecuted in India also. Sigh!

    ”Bajrang Dal, VHP and Dharam Dal activists freely raid Christian homes, carry out searches and humiliate women there on the pretext of curbing proselytism. There is a total failure of administration to protect human and religious rights of Christian minorities in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh,” Josh claimed.


  • Jul 15, 2014 - 11:57AM

    There is no such mass immigration! It is a planned propaganda against Pakistan from some foreign-based Christian NGOs and politicians. Christians are living all over Pakistan and facing the same problems as majority Muslims are facing now a day in the Pakistan. Of course there were some mishaps with Christians like individual blasphemy cases and two bomb blasts in churches, Lahore and Peshawar city but what about so many bomb blasts in Muslim Mosques and sacred shrines and tombs? virtually the whole of Pakistan is affected by thereligious misguided groups! Christians are living with us since they took active part in the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and they are comparatively safer in Pakistan than India! Such small migrations are a normal trend every where even millions of Pakistani Muslims are migrating for work in foreign countries for their betterment. So is the case with this Christian brothers and sisters. Don’t make waves in a water-tub!


  • Stealth
    Jul 15, 2014 - 12:02PM

    Rising intolerance is not limited to Pakistan only. It is a common phenomena in India also.
    Fights broke out in Orissa last Christmas Eve, when one person was killed and churches and temples were damaged. In 1999, a Hindu mob burned an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two children while they slept inside their car


  • truthbetold
    Jul 15, 2014 - 12:54PM

    How ironic that it has come to this! Christians were a most vocal supporters for the partition of India and creation of Pakistan. They got what they demanded, but now don’t like what they help create.


  • Feroz
    Jul 15, 2014 - 12:56PM

    Having mercilessly reduced the minorities to under 3% of the total population, through rape, forced conversions and forced marriages, the State and citizens should have had their blood lust satisfied, that does not seem to be the case so far. Even after this clean up or purification exercise, there seems to be no let up in the violence against minorities. Often the excuse given is that grinding poverty has made many into extremists, but there is no explanation for Lawyers showering petals on heinous killers. Unless the mindset of people changes through detoxification or otherwise, Pakistan will continue to suffer from the wrath of Allah. Just look around and one can see the results of ones actions.


  • truthbetold
    Jul 15, 2014 - 12:57PM

    @amir jafri:

    “How many Christians and Parsis participated in the Independence movement”

    Christians were very strong supporters for the creation of Pakistan.


  • Karachiite.A
    Jul 15, 2014 - 1:40PM

    On the contrary, Christians are preferred in many private companies, in jobs, in urban areas like Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad etc. there are hundreds of churches in Pakistan of Christian community, even in Peshawar there are dozens of churches(Google search churches in Pakistan). Few acts of violence and bigotry cannot be attributed to the whole Pakistani community.
    Also lot of NGO’s on foreign funding are here for the sole purpose of maligning Pakistan in international community, and for exactly the same purpose they got their dollars.


  • goggi (Lahore)
    Jul 15, 2014 - 2:29PM

    The differences are qualitative.

    2% Jews of the United States rule over the Congress and the American society!

    2% Christians of Pakistan could never get rid of the stigma of untouchables in a violent and inhuman Muslim society………..where a genocide is on its ways in North Pakistan, in the name of their human-blood-dripping sword “zarb-e-azb!”


  • visal
    Jul 15, 2014 - 2:37PM

    mr stealth and patriot you guys relly funny you just talking about orrisa in last 67 years but what about other states goa maharastra kerala tamilnadu hyderbad where cristian get most advantages and have you heard of church bomed by mobs in india or cristians leaving india because of rss or vhp . actually thats expected from a failed state.


  • vijay
    Jul 15, 2014 - 2:42PM

    But they dont leave India. Why?


  • sharabi
    Jul 15, 2014 - 4:33PM

    But did they leave? tell me why they do not?
    ok just leave Christians aside did Muslims leave?
    You have no answers so just using word India in your comment.
    Be mature


  • Jul 15, 2014 - 4:36PM

    @Patriot. N
    You might have deep google searched to find a news about India ! So old single story ? Also behind that story there is another story of conversion of poor people that you missed. While if same thing had happened in Pakistan then those people involved in conversion could have faced much severe consequences.Recommend

  • PatriotPakistani
    Jul 15, 2014 - 5:58PM

    Alhamdullah its a sign of good days to come. Day is not far when Pakistan will be the true Pak sar-zameen, true to its name, free from all kind of Paleeds.


  • Adpran
    Jul 15, 2014 - 6:07PM

    I guess, those Christians just transit in Thailand before they try to go to their final destination, Australia, like many other Pakistanis.

    I live in Indonesia. Do you know?, in last few years Indonesian immigration have arrested hundreds Pakistanis who illegally tried to enter Australia through Indonesia. Few of them died in sea accidents when they sailed to Australia.

    Those Pakistanis said they wanted to move to Australia because they felt insecure in Pakistan. They also talked about religious persecution. Interestingly, those who interviewed by local medias usually have names that indicate they are Shias. Frankly, it raised a question in my mind, what happen to the minorities in Pakistan?. Why they prefer to risk their life only to leave Pakistan?.


  • wiserneighbour
    Jul 15, 2014 - 6:12PM

    Just today Pakistan sentenced one guy to death over blasphemy. The wahabi/salafi mindset has destroyed the social fabric of Pakistan. Many people went to Sri Lanka, Thailand and many other countries where the visa norms are relatively easy.india does not entertain this type of asylum seekers from pak. Systematic brainwashing of youth and elders led to this disaster.


  • Stealth
    Jul 15, 2014 - 6:25PM

    @visal: This persecution of Christians is going on in Maharashtra as well, as well as other states of Bharat. Not restricted to Orissa alone.
    MUMBAI: Maharashtra has witnessed among the largest number of communal attacks on Christians in 2013, second only to Karnataka, says a recently-released report by the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF), an organization chaired by Justice Michael Saldanha, former judge at the Bombay and Karnataka high courts. Across the country, the report points at 4,000-odd offenses aimed at Christians, with 400 clergy and 100 churches attacked in a year.

    The only difference is Indian government hides those attacks to international media. And also because of the clout of India, few and far are reported.


  • Gp65
    Jul 15, 2014 - 9:23PM

    There is a difference if you are leaving because your minor daughter is at risk of forcibly converted. There is a difference if you ar threatened just because you protest your worship place being destroyed.

    It is interesting that Pakistanis still get bent out of shape about destruction of one mosque in India 22 years back – mosque which was buikt by destroying a temple and one where there had been no namaaz read for 50 years due to the case being in court. Yet many churches and temples are destroyed every year and the question seems to be ‘what’s the big deal’?


  • Np
    Jul 15, 2014 - 9:28PM


    Interesting that you consider treatment of Australians, Sri Lankans etc. who put a halt to such migration as extreme but you are silent about the treatment in your home country which forces these people to flee.


  • Np
    Jul 15, 2014 - 9:32PM

    @Patriot. N:
    Christians are not fleeing India. In India the only thing that is being resented is conversion of Hindus to Christianity using bribes, No Christian is being prevented from worshipping, no Christians are forcibly converted, no Churches are being burnt down and no one is accusing blasphemy laws to grab land belonging to Christians.


  • vinsin
    Jul 15, 2014 - 9:47PM

    In India culprits are behind bars unlike in pakistan where no investigation ever take place.
    So why then Christians are not leaving India according to you?

    @Aslam shaikh:
    you mean muslims are facing forced conversion in Pakistan and you want world to believe that.


  • Prof. Shahid Mobeen
    Jul 15, 2014 - 10:38PM

    We should stop accusing others of not taking care of their citizens of different faiths rather we need to create a culture of inter-religious harmony in Pakistan: Our Nation!


  • yousafhaque
    Jul 15, 2014 - 10:44PM

    Culling minorities and cutting trees is our most favourite hobby.We do not realise that both of them contribute to our delicate ecosystem in ways that can not be understood by the ignorants


  • Genesys
    Jul 16, 2014 - 1:16AM

    It is so well hidden that even you could locate it!


  • jamshed kharian-pak
    Jul 16, 2014 - 2:27AM

    Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Parsi or what ever your Religion is pakistani english elits has created war in Muslim Pakistan where everyone could stay in peace and prosper, the destruction of east pakistan was done by the same now they are Bombing Muslims in Balochistan, Karachi, Fata, KP, even in south punjab, Zionist nato forces are busy destroying Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypte, Yeman, Muslims in great majority are against the english political sysem in force in Islamic pakistan so here french saying Sauve qui peut! please dont blame Muslims we have our great pbs too!


  • Sudhindra
    Jul 16, 2014 - 4:56PM

    @amir jafri:
    “How many Christians and Parsis participated in the Independence movement…Can anybody name some names who went to prison or suffered during this period…post or pre-1857.”

    A few that come to mind:
    Joachim Ignatius Sebastian Alva
    George Joseph (5 June 1887 – 5 March 1938)

    Pherozeshah Mehta
    Dadabhai Naoroji
    Bhikaiji Cama


  • Jul 16, 2014 - 5:44PM

    @amir jafri: We smile on your ignorance. Talk of Christians Annie Besant, AJ Jhon, Kalichran Banerji, Jaochin Alva, Sarojni Naidu, Rajkumari Amritkaur and so on.
    Talk of Parsis Sir Cowasji, Jehangir Readymoney, Dastur Meherji Rana, Pherozeshah Mehta, Dadabhai Naoroji, Rustomji Dorabji Patel,Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, CAMA Kharshedji Rustamji and so on.
    Even today the Christian political leaders Ambika Soni ,K Antony ex- Defence Minister,India, Ajit Jogi,Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy – Former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Margaret Alva – ex Minister,Oscar Fernandes – Minister, Jagdish Tytler, P.A. Sangma – Chief Minister of Meghalaya, Agatha Sangama – Youngest Minister in India ( age : 28 years, George Fernandes – Politician, Janata Dal, Oommen Chandy – Former Chief Minister of Kerela,

    Please do not say that you do not know scores of Muslim leaders who participated in mov


  • Jul 16, 2014 - 5:46PM

    @Patriot. N: So does it justify the doings any where in the world. Counter blame is the easiest escape route. Courage to accept a wrong and act to correct it is the way.


  • Jul 16, 2014 - 6:10PM

    @Karachiite.A: “Also lot of NGO’s on foreign funding are here for the sole purpose of maligning Pakistan in international community”
    Can any one in Pakistan for once explain to us as to why the whole world is conspiring for destruction of Pakistan or maligning Pakistan. What is so special in Pakistan that the entire world is jealous of Pakistan. The fact is that entire world is trying hard to save Pakistan from destruction and for this purpose pumping millions of dollars. Friends there is no conspiracy against you there is no one who wants to attack you or capture you. Small countries all over the world like Switzerland, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and so on are living happily without piles of atom bomb and fear of attacks and conspiracies. These are self generated phobias that you must cure yourself. And if not look for the reasons of your insecurities.


  • Indian Catholic
    Jul 16, 2014 - 7:18PM

    @amir jafri: How many Christians and Parsis participated in the Independence movement?

    Indian National Congress, though not started explicitly for independence, was founded by A. O. Hume, Dadabhai Naoroji and Dinshaw Wacha, one Christian and two Parsis. This was the party that later had Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Azad, Ambedkar and Jinnah.

    Christians who took an active role in the independence of India include:

    K. C. Banerji (leader of Bengali Christian community)
    Upadhyaya Brahmabandav (one of the first to suggest independence of India, even before Gandhi)
    K.T. Paul (attended Second Round Table Conference)
    V.S. Azariah (advocated against separate electorate based on religion)
    S.K. George, P. Chenchiah, V. Chakkarai, S.K. Mukeerji & others.


  • Indian Catholic
    Jul 16, 2014 - 8:02PM

    @Usman Malik: I am sorry but this is not just a case of Christians/minorities fledgling the country, it is unfortunately just another way of economic migration.

    If you read the above article, you will see that one of the Christians interviewed explicitly mentioned that he was able to bear everything except the threat to his family. Chris Cork also wrote about the migration of Christians from Pakistan in his article on ET.

    You are being facetious by suggesting economic migration as the sole case as there are many like me in India who went and lived in the west but then came back to live in India.

    @Stealth: This persecution of Christians is going on in Maharashtra as well, as well as other states of Bharat. Not restricted to Orissa alone.

    The brutal murder of Graham Staines and his son happened because the he went to the jungles of Orissa to convert tribals there and faced a backlash from them. The perpetrator was caught, sentenced and had been incarcerated

    You are bringing in an isolated instance that occurred in India 15 years ago to compare with contemporary persecution and the resultant exodus from Pakistan.

    While I have read Justice Saldanha’s reports, he tends to exaggerate numbers by treating any action against any Christian, even trivial ones, as hate crime.

    The incidents and statistics you have mentioned do not reflect the ground reality in India. We Christians do not live in fear in India. Our churches are open throughout the day and sometimes the night and there is absolutely no need for security nor is there any security. We openly celebrate our festivals and holy occasions. Christians in India generally do not face any animosity from any community and we are stereotyped as fun-loving all-day-partying people in Bollywood movies. Our numbers are small and we are 1/5 the size of the Muslim community in India but our human development parameters are high and we are second only to Sikhs on this front. Christians are largely well-integrated in India and we actively participate in our community.

    However the most important fact to note is that religion is secondary in India. Most Indians do not wear their religion on their sleeve and even if they do, we do not consider it important.


  • kksr
    Jul 17, 2014 - 8:28AM

    @amir jafri:
    Did Jinnah go to prison?


  • kksr
    Jul 17, 2014 - 8:33AM

    @Aslam shaikh:
    So, how many mosques and churches were bombed in India? How many minorities are in prison due to bogus blasphemy cases?


  • Jul 18, 2014 - 9:16AM

    How brave people and humans have to be stand up for something. Good luck in your journey. Welcome to Thailand.


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