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Fleeing to Thailand

During the last four years, thousands of Christians have left Pakistan to seek asylum in Thailand from where media reports of their plight in prisons and detention centres have been pouring in since then. Our state, though, has quite indifferently looked the other way.

In Thailand, these Pakistanis are viewed as illegal immigrants not as ‘refugees’ because the country has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 protocol. Thailand often does not even grant asylum to those declared genuine refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

On paying a certain amount to the Thai government, the illegal immigrants can stay free for a two-year period during which they cannot be re-arrested. However, during this time they are still not allowed to work. As a result, these people suffer from hunger and disease.

Recent media reports suggest that the Thai police have been carrying out raids to arrest those who have overstayed their visas. At present 11,500 Pakistani Christians are said to be illegally overstaying in Thailand. Owing to the police raids at places where these asylum-seekers live, most of these people are too frightened to go outside their living spaces for any reasons. They keep themselves locked inside their rooms so that the place appears to be unoccupied.

The asylum seekers arrested in police raids are kept at Bangkok’s Immigrant Detention Centre or the Central Criminal Jail where they reportedly live in horrific conditions. These centres and prisons are said to be massively overcrowded. Media reports suggest that the cramped conditions in the detention centres are terrible, with 150 refugees being kept in rooms meant for 100 – with just one toilet to be shared by all.

According to reports appearing via Christian aid organisations and the media including the BBC, detainees get extremely poor food to eat – for example, a small amount of rice and boiled cucumber in water for the whole day. There is no wonder then that most asylum seekers are emaciated and in poor health. In the raids made last December two-thirds of the detainees were women and girls, along with babies and young children.

In crowded living spaces infections spread quickly among asylum-seekers but no medical aid is available to them. Media reports have said that a number of people have died in these detention centres, some of them because the authorities refused to provide them essential medicines. However, the Thai government denies these allegations.

At the immigration detention centres, men are separated from women and mothers are separated from their children including babies. It is impossible for a mother to nurse her own infant or sustain feeding because of a lack of adequate food and forced separation from the babies. Babies are generally not fed any milk until donor agencies provide formula milk.

The death of 53-year-old Pervaiz Masih in January this year illustrates the miserable state of Pakistani Christians seeking asylum in Thailand. The British Pakistani Christian Association reported that Masih died in detention at an immigration centre in Bangkok after security guards refused to provide him medication he needed for a heart condition and a tumour. According to the association, Thai authorities did not provide any chair or bed for the man despite his sickly appearance and evidence of his poor health.

In Bangkok’s infamous Central Jail, the asylum-seekers have been kept in shackles alongside felons including rapists and murders and they are stripped naked with their sons and brothers.

Last month, BBC World ran a documentary on this issue showing the disturbing images of the conditions in which these Pakistani Christians are living in Bangkok. Some of them narrated their traumatic stories on camera.

The grim stories of these illegal immigrants have not only earned a bad name for the Thai government but also cast Pakistan in a bad light for creating such unfavourable conditions at home that members of a religious minority are forced to flee their own homeland in large numbers.

Christian asylum-seekers claim they have fled their country to escape the persecution and hatred they face for being a religious minority. Some of them allege that they face death threats back home for refusing to convert to Islam. Others say their lives were under threat on accusations of committing blasphemy.

It may be argued that some of these asylum seekers have exaggerated these stories of persecution and are actually economic migrants in search of better life, but it is equally true that the general conditions in Pakistan are quite unfavourable for members of religious minority communities. In the face of a high unemployment rate and absence of a social security system, poor members of minority communities have to suffer more hardship than their Muslim counterparts.

Protection of political, civic and economic rights of religious minorities is an issue that needs to be addressed by the state in the long run. The immediate requirement is that the Pakistan government makes diplomatic efforts to provide humanitarian support to these stranded Pakistanis in Thailand.

Our government needs to work with the Thai authorities to provide basic human necessities such as adequate food and medicines to these illegal immigrants in detention cells and prisons until their legal issues are resolved. The state should also offer rehabilitation to those who wish to return to their homeland. After such a harrowing experience in Thailand, many of them might like to come back home.

Email: adnanadilzaidi@gmail.com

Adnan Adil, "Fleeing to Thailand," The News. 2016-03-30.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Civil society , Social media , Religious aspects , Religious teachings , Spiritual connection , Humanity , Religious minorities , United Nations , Refugees , Crimes , Politics , Pervaiz Masih , Thailand , Bangkok , Pakistan , UNHCR