Date: September 28, 2016
By Asif Aqeel
Sep. 28, 2016
Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in Thailand have criticised the role of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in dealing with their cases. In March, World Watch Monitor reported that there were about 11,500 Pakistanis seeking asylum in Thailand, a 51 per cent increase from the previous year; all are classified as Christians in a detailed report by UK-based researchers.
Recent interviews have revealed that the Christians feel the UNHCR treats their applications unsympathetically and thereby delays their resettlement.
This, despite the fact that in April, World Watch Monitor reported that UN officials issued temporary ID cards for them, in order to catch up with the acknowledged backlog of applications.
This move was in response to a BBC documentary, shown worldwide, which highlighted the plight of those, who, having “overstayed”, were then arrested and locked up in detention centres in Thailand. Members of the British Parliament urged their government to adopt a harsher official assessment of Pakistan’s treatment of Christians. The MPs said UN officials in Thailand were not sufficiently concerned that Christians “face a real risk of persecution” if returned to their home country, the officials quoting Britain’s current, less-than-urgent assessment of Pakistan as partial justification.
One of the Christians now in Thailand is Talib Masih, accused of insulting Islam in an incident in Gojra (in Pakistan’s Punjab Province) in 2009, which led to seven Christians being killed and more than 100 Christian homes set on fire. This saw the first spike in numbers as thousands of Christians fled to Thailand with the hope of eventual resettlement in the West.
Masih reached Bangkok in 2011, after having been forced, for fear of his life, to go into hiding in Pakistan for two years.
“A group of Christians who brought me here have been resettled in the Netherlands, but the UNHCR has refused, and totally closed, my application,” Masih told World Watch Monitor. “Now I don’t know how to live in Thailand, but also I don’t feel safe going back to Pakistan.”
“I was living in Lahore when I had my passport done, but the UNHCR objected that my passport should have been from Gojra, where I lived before,” he said. “All my documents were burned in the fire and I could not go back to Gojra to get new ones [because it would be unsafe], but the UNHCR is unwilling to accept my claim.”
Masih remembers the day he was summoned to a community meeting, where his children were accused of tearing pages from a copy of the Quran, an insult to Islam. It was in July 2009, and someone said they had seen children throwing the ripped pages into the air at a wedding. Masih told his accusers – a group of young Muslim men – that his children had only thrown confetti and hadn’t touched any Islamic holy book.
“But these men refused to believe me and began beating me,” he said. “I kept apologising for what I had not done, but they didn’t let it go until a man, whom I didn’t know, stopped them.”
Masih headed home with his 15-year-old son, Imran, but before they reached their house, a group of armed men began to give chase. Shots were fired in their direction, and father and son fled.
“I don’t know what happened next, but later learned that first my house was set on fire and then other houses of Christians were set ablaze,” he said.
He said family members in his house had spotted the attackers coming, and had darted into the fields to hide.
Another Christian refugee in Thailand, Nasir Tufail Bhatti, told World Watch Monitor:
“I belong to a Christian family. I was a politician in my own country, I was Deputy Opposition Leader in [the] District Assembly. I was performing my obligations as a Vice Chairman of [the] Pakistan Interfaith Peace Committee.
“So every time I was with my oppressed Christian community when they faced danger or harassment. So once terrorists and extremists attacked … churches and people, they burnt many churches, Bibles, crosses and beat so many Christians very badly till death in Badami Bagh, Joseph Colony, Lahore.
“After all that, as an Interfaith Peace Leader I stood steadfast with my oppressed community’s brothers and sisters for justice and peace. I contacted [the] court and police, but this action was not acceptable for cruel terrorists, so they turned very badly against me and wanted to kill me; but when they failed to find me, they kidnapped my son.
“I came to Thailand to save my life. My wife [had a] heart attack – in shock about me leaving, and our kidnapped son – and died; I couldn't go back for my wife's funeral. I still cry badly for my wife and kids; I am in Thailand more than three years.
“There are many difficulties in Thailand and my kids are growing up without education. I had my life threatened in Pakistan, so I came here to save my life. I have requested [help from the] UNHCR, but there is no satisfactory response and now here jail threatens in Thailand because I am an ‘over-stayer’.”
Yet another case is that of 45-year-old Johnson Nazir, who came to Thailand in 2013 from Karachi. Before that, he worked in a bank, entering data.
“When I came to Thailand, the UNHCR was resettling refugees within a year, but now it takes more than a year after the submission of the application even to get an interview,” Nazir told World Watch Monitor. “The final resettlement is now taking more than five years.”
According to one Pakistani Christian woman, who wished to remain anonymous, children are worst affected by the delay. She said that the UNHCR and Bangkok Refugee Center have made some arrangements for their education (sending them to government schools), but that they are insufficient.
“Thai schools aren’t interested to teach our students, nor are they happy there, because everything is in Thai, which they don’t understand. So teachers send these students out of class,” she said. “The best possible option is that these students are sent to Indian international schools that charge 3,500 baht [US$100] per month. The cost will be a bit high for the UNHCR but it can save the future of our children, as long as they are in Thailand.”