Asylum seekers: Living like a refugee

Thousands of Pakistanis are leaving their homeland to seek safety elsewhere — but not everyone succeeds

Asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan argue with Indonesian policemen at a temporary shelter in Merak, Indonesia. PHOTO: FILE

Aliens do exist.

Far from Steven Spielberg’s Reese’s-devouring ET, these ‘aliens’ are no different from humans — but only because they are. Refugees (also referred to as aliens) have been traversing the earth since centuries, with references to them found in texts written 3,500 years ago. With increasing persecution, terrorism and wars, however, the trend of exodus has vigorously picked up momentum in the last decade.

Despite being the world’s largest host country, sheltering millions of Afghans following the Soviet war, Pakistan has made it difficult for its denizens to live sans persecution. In 2013 alone, the country produced 50,443 asylum-seekers, an approximate 200% increase in migrants since 2009. While the reasons for leaving Pakistan have not changed, the need to leave has become more urgent. As the country continues to grapple with a fledgling democracy, most asylum-seekers leave the country due to a single, overwhelming fear: persecution from terrorists, according to Harnam S Arneja, a Washington, DC-based lawyer who works on asylum cases. “Fear of persecution from terrorists on the basis of religion especially for Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis is forcing people to leave Pakistan,” he adds.

Asylum-seeker arrive by boat. PHOTO: REUTERS

An undergraduate Ahmadi student Rana Imranullah left Sialkot in 2013 after a cleric warned him to leave the country or face persecution. His asylum case was successfully pleaded in England this March. Imran is one of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers looking towards safer ground. “My statement for seeking asylum was entirely based on religious persecution that we face in Pakistan,” he wrote to The Express Tribune from London. He now fears for his family, saying, “The lives of my relatives are in danger. We are very scared due to continuous threats by extremists. I’ve put my family’s case before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Let’s hope the body processes their case soon.”

Safiya Aftab, co-author of a study on migration conducted by Awaz, a non-profit organisation, says there is either a trend of ‘ghettoisation’ within their neighbourhoods and villages in Pakistan or immigration to other countries in South and East Asia. “Ahmadis are more vulnerable because there is specific legislation targeting the community. Sikhs are being targeted by militants, while Christians and Hindus face systematic discrimination,” she adds.

Aimal Khan, an expert on refugees, says many people — minority communities in particular — are leaving the country as “they are being threatened by militants”. The Hindu community is perhaps the worst victim, he claims. When a country becomes a security state, it can only witness more migration, says Khan, who has been associated with a research institute focusing on immigrants in Pakistan.

Hindu activist Ramesh Jaipal, who worked on a study titled ‘Exodus of Hindus families… a reality?’ tells The Express Tribune that Hindus are leaving the country due to fear of forced conversions. “When the state breaks the social contract with its people and fails to protect them, minorities are left at the mercy of God.”

To the land of the free

In the years after the 9/11 attacks in New York, the US became a country of choice for thousands of Pakistanis looking to escape their fate. According to data available with the UNHCR, in 2002 close to 20% of the 7,000 Pakistanis looking to the leave the country applied to the US government for asylum. “Asylum-seekers know it’s easy to live freely in the US without the troubles they face in their own country in terms of freedom of speech,” explains a Pakistani-American businessman in Washington, Asad Chaudhry.

Freedom, however, does not come easy. According to Arneja, changes to the US application standards along with a decreasing rate of approvals makes seeking asylum a tedious, and often unsuccessful, endeavour.

More than 80,000 Hazaras have fled Pakistan, and Australia was a popular destination until 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS

Since ‘fear’ is a subjective state of mind, assessing the merits of an asylum case rests in large part on the credibility of the claim and the likelihood that persecution would occur if the applicant returns home. Two distinct concepts — the credibility of the claim or ‘credible fear’ and the likelihood of persecution or ‘well-founded fear’ — are fundamental to establishing the standards. A third dimension that overlaps these concepts is the issue of ‘mixed motives’ for persecuting the applicant.

Additionally, all foreign nationals seeking asylum are subject to multiple backgrounds checks in the terrorist, immigration and law enforcement databases. Those who enter the country legally on non-immigrant visas are screened by the consular officers at the state departments when they apply for a visa. All foreign nationals are inspected by Customs and Border Protection officers at ports of entry. Those who enter the country illegally are screened by the US Border Patrol.

More and more people are, therefore, disillusioned by the prospect of living in America. In 2013, less than 2.5% of more than 26,000 Pakistanis leaving their homeland were looking towards the US.

Majid Bashir, a Pakistani jurist who is dealing with cases of asylum-seekers, states several reasons for the declining trend of those wanting to seek refuge in the US. The US has imposed restrictions on Pakistan by putting it on the watch list when it comes to dealing with trade and intellectual property rights, says Bashir. “New laws of the US and the alleged involvement of Muslims in security-related issues/incidents could be the major reason behind this,” he adds. Job restrictions on the Muslim community, the indifferent attitude of Americans to Muslims, security threats and consequent checks by the local police and homeland security have further driven the asylum-seekers to the fringe.

Nevertheless, since 2002, America has resettled 927 refugees from Pakistan, says a public affairs officer of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Christine Getzler Vaughan. These statistics, however, do not include those who may have migrated to the US via other means or sought asylum after arrival, she adds.

High hopes and rejections

Despite the many hardships, Pakistanis remain undeterred. More than 3,400 have renounced their Pakistani citizenship in the past five years. Born and raised in the country, they voluntarily became citizens of other countries in search of a better future. “The 3,400 cases of renunciation of Pakistani nationality have been successfully handled,” revealed Director General of Immigration and Passports, Muhammad Safdar, in an official progress report submitted to the Ministry of Interior last month. “Some 141 cases of citizenship registration which were pending from previous years have also been decided,” the report stated.

According to immigration officials, so far, around 171 Pakistanis have become US citizens, 75 of Norway, 251 of Canada, 121 of New Zeeland, 54 of Denmark and 145 of Australia, while the rest opted for citizenship of other European and Middle Eastern countries. Around 1,534 Pakistani applicants who want to renounce their citizenships are also being processed, shared the officials.

It is the light at the end of the tunnel that asylum-seekers are chasing. But to get to the end of the tunnel  they undertake a journey fraught with many challenges. Official details submitted to Parliament reveal that 140 Pakistani nationals have been being deported every day from 49 countries since 2009. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs shared this information on the request of Jamaat-e-Islami MNA Sahibzada Tariqullah. These countries have expelled 253,894 Pakistanis during the past five years.

But according to Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for Asia and the Americas, UNHCR Geneva, Switzerland, “Asylum-seekers from all countries, including Pakistan, who wish to settle in US and Canada have access to the process that determines the claimant’s refugee status. In accordance with UNHCR’s confidentiality policy, we don’t publicly comment on individual claims and circumstances.” The UNHCR asks governments and other decision makers to “carefully assess the needs of international protection for each asylum-seeker,” when determining the eligibility of asylum claims, adds Baloch.

Fighting for the future

The fear has to be immense for someone to leave their homeland for a place they do not know will accept them. While some have the means to fly to their destinations of choice, many risk their lives for the promise of a new one. Tens of thousands have died traversing hostile waters in precarious boats operated by smugglers. Last month, nearly a thousand asylum-seekers died when a smuggler’s boat carrying migrants to Italy capsized off Libya’s coast.

These people did not have to die, however. With a little compassion, many lives can be saved. A world without borders may be hard to imagine, but to imagine a world without borders as unyielding as they are, isn’t.

Zahid Gishkori is a 2014 Alfred Friendly/Daniel Pearl fellow and a national correspondent for The Express Tribune. He tweets @ZahidGishkori 

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 10th, 2015.


JSM | 6 years ago | Reply @Motiwala: Wonderful. How soon can we expect the whole neighbourhood vacated of the garbage.
Motiwala | 6 years ago | Reply @JSM: Because they got hindustan as a neighbor.
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