'They will kill us': Pakistani Christian family seeks asylum in Bangkok after escape

Published: February 26, 2015
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An asylum seeker who fled religious persecution in Pakistan holds a cross while living in the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, where they wait, often for years, to be resettled in a third country such as the US or Canada. PHOTO: AP

An asylum seeker who fled religious persecution in Pakistan holds a cross while living in the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, where they wait, often for years, to be resettled in a third country such as the US or Canada. PHOTO: AP

BANGKOK: They were a middle-class family in Pakistan, living in a comfortable three-bedroom apartment with a modern kitchen and a PlayStation for the three kids, reports The Associated Press.

Fluent in English, the father ran his own moving company while the mother taught art.

A death threat signed by an extremist group with three bullets attached compelled the Christian family to leave it all behind 18 months ago.

Now they live in a barren room in Bangkok, where the children share a double bed and the parents sleep on the floor. They cook on a propane burner on a tiny balcony.

A picture of Jesus, the source of their solace and their troubles, hangs on the inside of the door.

 

 

In this January 12, 2015, photo, an asylum-seeker sits on her bed in a one-room apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand. PHOTO: AP

 

This, increasingly, is the life of the asylum-seeker and refugee.

More than half the 14 million refugees and asylum-seekers under the mandate of the UN refugee agency do not live in the camps they are often associated with.

A growing number live in cities and towns around the world. Across Asia, from India to the Pacific islands, there are about half a million such “urban refugees,” according to the agency.

The Pakistani family no longer fears for their lives, but they face other fears like arrest, hunger and the possibility that they will never be able to live freely.

Unable to work legally and with no legal status in Thailand, they and others like them must remain mostly hidden while they scrape by on odd jobs and donations from churches, aid groups and individuals.

Their children, all elementary-school age, do not go to school and spend their entire day indoors.

“We just wanted to save our lives,” said the father, who has overstayed his visa and like the dozen other asylum-seekers interviewed for this story asked not to be identified for fear of arrest. “We didn’t know anything when we arrived. Now we are just trying to survive.”

Many asylum-seekers pin their hopes on an elusive prize: resettlement in a third country such as the US or Canada through a process overseen by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees.

 

PHOTO: AP

That can take five years or more, and it often doesn’t happen at all.

The surge of urban refugees challenges reluctant host countries like Thailand, which in the past has allowed refugees from surrounding countries into border camps, but doesn’t legally recognise asylum-seekers or refugees.

It’s relatively easy to obtain a Thai tourist visa.

One reason is that the number of asylum-seekers in Bangkok has jumped several-fold to more than 8,000 over the past few years, according to numbers from the UNHCR.

The biggest and fastest-growing contingent here is from Pakistan, experts say, while other big groups come from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Somalia and Syria.

When they land, many are shocked to discover they face arrest once their visas run out.

They expect the UNHCR will protect them, but refugee advocates say Thai police generally ignore UN letters declaring them to be “persons of concern.”

Thailand never signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that protects refugees’ rights; neither have neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, where thousands more asylum-seekers live.

So these urban refugees scrape by in limbo, freer than those in camp settings but in some ways more vulnerable.

“This is the future,” said Mireille Girard, the Thailand representative for the UNHCR. “We really have to adjust to providing assistance in urban environments.“

Despite the hardships, many say they will never return home. They are too afraid. “We’ll just face the same sort of threats again,” said the mother. “I’m not willing to sacrifice my children for that. “

‘We will shoot you and your children’

In Pakistan, the couple and some Catholic friends helped run a small, free school for poor children.

One morning in 2013, a warning signed by an militant group was slipped under the door of the school office.

“Stop giving missionary education to Muslim children. Otherwise, we will shoot you and your children,” said the threat, which was viewed by The Associated Press.

Ten days later, the school received another warning, only this time it was with bullets.

The school volunteers filed a complaint to the police; the AP viewed a copy of the document, which had been stamped by local police to indicate they had received it.

 

PHOTO: AP

The couple’s account was corroborated by several people contacted by the AP. The couple said the school never taught Christianity to Muslim children, but did teach Bible stories and prayers to the Christian kids when their Muslim classmates were not there.

They said that sometimes the Muslim kids would hang around, hear the prayers and recite them at home. Pakistan’s religious minorities are increasingly persecuted – not only Christians but Hindus and Ahmadis.

They say that although no one has been executed under the country’s harsh blasphemy law, it has been used to threaten non-Muslims and incite mob violence. In November, a Christian couple was killed by a mob for allegedly desecrating the Quran.

An estimated 12,000 religious minorities have fled Pakistan since 2009, according to Farrukh Saif, who heads a minority advocacy group that supports asylum-seekers in Bangkok.

The threatened couple fled to Thailand because friends said it was easy to get a tourist visa and because other Christians had gone there.

“People told us, ‘Save your lives first, then worry about the other things, “’ the father said. After hiding for a month, they packed two suitcases of their belongings and boarded a midnight flight for Bangkok. When they arrived in the steamy Thai capital, relief quickly turned to anxiety.

The food, the language – everything was new.

The father went to the UNHCR to register as an asylum-seeker and was shocked to learn he would have to wait two years – until September 2015 – just to get his first interview in the “refugee status determination” process.

Now, for new arrivals, the wait is three years.

The UN agency has more than 60 staffers in Bangkok working to verify thousands of asylum-seekers’ stories and determine whether they are refugees with well-founded fears of persecution, said the UNHCR’s Girard.

Each case must be examined to screen out those trying to exploit the system, such as those being trafficked by smuggling rings.

“We have to be very strict in recognising who is a genuine refugee and who is not,” she said. For those waiting, money quickly becomes an issue.

After exhausting their savings, the Pakistani family visited churches for support. Most turned them down.

Eventually, one congregation offered about $100 a month. The mother found a job teaching English to Thai children.

She earns $250 a month, enough to cover rent, utilities and a bit of food.

The father, jobless for many months, recently found work at a nursery, but that means their three children are alone in the apartment all day. And now both parents could be arrested for working illegally.

“When I go to work, I don’t know if I’m going to come back to my kids or not,” said the father.

Those arrested typically wind up in the Immigration Detention Center. The only way out is paying for your own flight home or finally gaining resettlement overseas.

Some stay in detention for years. Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director for the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation, said the Thai government fears that recognising asylum-seekers and refugees would draw more of them.

He said Thailand’s location and ease of access will draw desperate people anyway, and reforms are needed to address that reality.

Government ministries have had informal discussions about legislation that would protect asylum-seekers and refugees for one year, without granting the right to work, Veerawit said.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the permanent secretary at Thailand’s Foreign Ministry, said the proposal merits a serious look, but is not in the pipeline for formal consideration.

The first interview with the UN can be traumatic.

People are asked to provide evidence of persecution. Some break down in tears or can’t express themselves clearly, said Medhapan Sundaradeja, the Thailand director for Asylum Access, a nonprofit group that gives asylum-seekers free advice.

Decisions can take months. Inconsistencies can lead to cases getting rejected, though asylum-seekers can appeal.

Files of people recognised as refugees are then sent to potential host countries to be considered for resettlement, a process that typically takes another 12 to 18 months.

But of the roughly 860,000 most vulnerable refugees worldwide believed to need resettlement in 2013, only 80,000 spaces were available.

The US accounted for about 70 per cent of those.

The Pakistani father says they have no choice but to wait.

He has no doubt what extremists will do if he returns: “I know they will kill both of us, my wife and me, and they won’t spare my children.“

So he waits and dreams of a life where they don’t need to hide and where his children can freely attend school. “We just want to go where our lives are safe,” he says with a sigh, “and we have some freedom.”

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Reader Comments (12)

  • Utpal
    Feb 26, 2015 - 2:10PM

    Sad, sad, very sad. Is it the country dreamt by Mr.Jinnah!Recommend

  • Khan
    Feb 26, 2015 - 2:12PM

    Ohhh come on. Muslims are at more danger in Pakistan from extremists than anyone of the other faith. Government needs to take serious action. I feel very scared going out at all and during prayers even more. I am a Muslim and pashtun :/ Recommend

  • Reddy
    Feb 26, 2015 - 3:08PM

    there are more than 100,000 pakistani hindus and sikhs live in india today, those who got friends may not find it difficult but those who do not, have to work their way up to get any meaningful job for years.. well having a tag like pakistani before your name doesn’t help the cause at all…this indian govt atleast has some policy regarding refugees…good luck to those guys who fled pakistanRecommend

  • TooTrue
    Feb 26, 2015 - 3:30PM

    I’m spending the winter in Bangkok. I used to visit the IDC (immigration detention center) as a part of a charity. There arexquite a few Pakistanis being held there. I see the Christians on social media desperately seeking employment. It’s quite heart breaking. Recommend

  • Burjor Rustomji
    Feb 26, 2015 - 3:42PM

    This country should never have been created. Every human makes mistakes and Jinnah was no exception. The government does not do what any governments first and foremost responsibility is, which is to safeguard the life and property of its citizens. The above article is a very serious case. What exactly should people whose lives have been threatened do? Where can they go? who should they approach, I think minorities have to set up body to help anyone amongst them with the help of the government and those wishing to help from the civil society. Living in a very abnormal nation makes even surviving a daunting task as the above story illustrates. Recommend

  • Hella
    Feb 26, 2015 - 4:03PM

    @Khan, Agree with you that more Muslims are in danger in Pakistan, but this does not mean that non- Muslims are not in danger. In fact, in proportion to their population, non-Muslims are in far greater danger. However if one goes by sheer numbers more Muslims are killed then non- Muslims in Pakistan, especially non-Sunni, Pastuns, Balochistani and Sindhi Muslims. Only Sunni Punjabi muslims and Sunni mohajirs are safe in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Noman
    Feb 26, 2015 - 10:16PM

    @Burjor Rustomji:

    “This country should never have been created.” So bad thing to say and also about Mr Jinnah who gave his life for us and at-least his assassination speaks loud that he remained unshakable to something not acceptable for people in the helm of affairs and it also places a lot happenings in struggle of independence in perspective.
    On the other hand your lines reflects our collective failures to back our Heroes from our earliest history as Ummah/Nation and this strange instinct in us is no secret.
    Suppose this an un-partitioned India and tell me how safe you are being a Muslim or Christian or whatever in it?
    As a Shia i am heaving in the bottom of the pyramid and yet i say This Country is A Blessing people if we just manage not to go to any new low.Recommend

  • zara
    Feb 26, 2015 - 10:37PM

    @Hella:
    Yes aps kids were christians, balochs, pashtus, non sunnis .Recommend

  • Mushtaq Ahmed
    Feb 26, 2015 - 11:59PM

    @Noman:

    Really…………pity on you! You seem to be having a Stockholm syndrome……..visit India if you could and see for yourself how indian muslims are living side by side with hindus and sikhs, yes, THERE ARE PROBLEMS but which society does not have its problems?, partition has increased those problems and NOT REDUCED IT.Recommend

  • ilyas
    Feb 27, 2015 - 12:54AM

    @Burjor Rustomji:
    Are you suggesting that everything is excellent in India, Minorities are living peacefully enjoying equal opportunities? Do you think burning of churches and mosques, massacre of minorities, exploitation of poor, etc. etc. are non-existent in India? Is this what you wanted for people of Pakistan and Bangladesh? Its the failure of our corrupt government and the people nor the two nation two theory. In fact the treatment of minorities in India has upheld the two nation theory (thou the theory had its strong feet to stand on and was not dependent on the way “secular India” treated non-Hindus to prove it). We salute the vision of Jinnah for providing us this land of the unlimited opportunities and bounties. Just see what India has done in Kashmir. Just ponder why there are so many separatist movements in India. There hegemony has destroyed peace in the region. An undivided India for sure would have been root of trouble with China, Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Recommend

  • Sobriquet
    Feb 27, 2015 - 7:50PM

    @Noman:
    1
    By claiming that Jinnah was assassinated you are deplorably trying to invent a new history. For decades Jinnah suffered from tuberculosis and later also pneumonia. He died because of his illness. Nothing extraordinary as in those days TB was very difficult to cure.

    2
    You also claim that Pakistan is a blessing for those such as yoursefl at the ‘botton of the pyramid’. Please elaborate how?Recommend

  • Noman
    Feb 27, 2015 - 11:07PM

    @Mushtaq Ahmed:
    @Sobriquet:
    AoA
    Well, according to a not-far-sighted study, Internet trolls have some awful tendencies: sadism, narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism being some of the most notable. Anyways you can argue for years with internet trolls and nothing will come of it.
    What exactly i am dealing here with?
    People on the internet are not necessarily the same as people in real life. They are a particular subset of the population who often are particularly flip flopping.
    One can be a paid RAW keyboard rock star or is self deluded.
    One might be short sighted or stuck in the 20th century.
    I can’t attest to whether or not people lied in history but sure i know from my experience not to develop a no-question-asked relation with them.
    Sob should read more about Quid’s last days don’t stay so shallow about the great statesman.
    And i am firm on the very logic of the separation of hate ridden Zion driven nation from the world by China on one hand and Pakistan on the other.
    The doctrine of the Indian secret agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is based on the principle of waging continuous secret battles through its agents. Since its creation in 1968, RAW has assumed a significant status in formulation of Indian foreign policy.
    I am not accusing languishing AAM AADMI of India its the cancer which the third world country is living with from its so called independence from Imperial States who never leaved the region and executed Jinnah Gandhi who could do us some good.
    Neo Colonial Indian’s Role in region is open for the poor nations surrounding it ie; Sri Lanka and other SAARC members.
    RAW paid content and comment writers are crowding internet following NSA of USA.
    Well how far do you want to go…
    Pakistan is bleeding and paying the cost for region and people who really matter see it.Recommend

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