The plight of Pakistan's religious minoritiesBorder Crossings
Editor's Note: This is part one in our series on Pakistan's persecuted religious minorities. Click here to read part two, focused on the Ahmadi Muslim population.
Nestled in the outskirts of Bangkok, hidden from the tremendous flow of tourists and brightly lit skyscrapers, are several pockets of immigrants seeking refugee status, having fled from their home countries when circumstances there became unbearable. Apartment buildings have entire floors crammed with asylum seekers from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, and Myanmar. They receive tourist visa exemptions on arrival, and then scatter into hiding in the city once the limits of their stay has expired, melting into the crammed corners of the city's poor, moving strategically to avoid detection, left with severely limited options for survival.
Among these immigrants are a mostly unheard of group of Pakistani Christians. In Pakistan, many of them were subject to violent mob attacks, bombings of religious buildings, arbitrary arrests, and a complete lack of legal recourse or government protection in the face of severe persecution.
Their numbers are not certain since the vast majority live in hiding and are especially cautious to reveal themselves or their circumstances, from fear of arrest by Thai authorities. In interviews for this piece, however, the most common estimates from Church leaders suggest that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 Pakistani Christians living on expired visas inside Bangkok, most of whom are in hiding in the outskirts. Others have been arrested and placed inside both the Bangkok Immigration Detention Center and regular jails when the IDC is overcrowded.
When a Pakistani family arrives in Bangkok with the intention of fleeing their home country, they first go to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). At this point, they are recorded as asylum seekers and given paperwork that requests they are allowed stay and be protected by the country they are seeking asylum in while their claim for refugee status is processed. The process for an asylum seeker to receive refugee status by the UNHCR can take anywhere between one and five years, according to those interviewed for this story.
Thailand does not recognize any request by the UNHCR for protection or asylum, and is unbound to any agreement to recognize these individuals as asylum seekers. For now, they have not deported those seeking asylum, except in a few rare cases such as largely condemned instances where they did deport Uyghur asylum seekers whom the Chinese Government sought to have extradited for prosecution.
The resulting circumstances for asylum seekers in Thailand require them to live in hiding, with no legal way to earn money to support their families. Many families rely on a their oldest son, or father to work for $200-$300 a month in restaurants around the city that are willing to hire undocumented workers. This small amount of money is then used to support families as large as 12 people, spanning three generations. If the member of the family who is working is caught by the police they will be sent to the Immigration Detention Center and what small income these families did have to survive on will be completely cut off.
Persecution of Christians In Pakistan:
In Pakistan, there has been a climate of political instability since its independence from British Colonialism and its separation from India. Little unifies citizens in the country, and the many political parties are largely viewed as corrupt. The religious and conservative political parties have frequently been accused of having connections to terrorist organizations, while the more socialist and secular groups are accused of utilizing what are known as “target killers” — assassins who kill political opponents for money. All the while the military has remained a constant political force, repeatedly taking control of the country outright. Amidst this turmoil, minorities in the Sunni Muslim majority country have been a frequent scapegoat and target for oppression both by citizens and the government itself. Christians, Hindus, and Muslims from other sects such as Shia and Ahmadiyya, have all been targets of organized attacks, murder, and discrimination with almost no political or social recourse to improve their situation.
Blasphemy is illegal in Pakistan. In the most severe cases the perceived insulting of the Quran or the Muslim Prophet Mohamed can be punished by death. The blasphemy law originates from British Colonial law established in 1860, which sought to prevent the insulting of any religion in the colony by anyone of another faith. It has since become a tool of oppression against religious minorities, including minority Muslim sects whom are widely perceived in the country as deviating and spreading heresy. The law has also become a frequent tool of arbitrary accusations against minorities involved in unrelated personal disputes.
In speaking with Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, he summarized the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan: “These dangers are very real, and the use of blasphemy to target religious minorities is serious and growing. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Pakistan government to investigate these abuses and prosecute any found responsible, but those calls have not met with any positive response. Even in cases where persons accused of blasphemy are not convicted, local communities violently target the accused and there is case after case of vigilante killings that remain unsolved by the Pakistan authorities. These Pakistani Christians are right to fear for their lives because they know that the Pakistan government is not doing anything to protect them.”
Several Pakistani Christian families and individuals were interviewed for this story, all of them living currently in the outskirts of Bangkok, struggling to find food money to pay rent and feed their families while they waited for the UNHCR to decide if they qualify for refugee status. Most of the families interviewed for this piece left considerable financial comfort in Pakistan and have no obvious financial motivation for fleeing. Below are the personal accounts of Christian Pakistanis who fled Pakistan for fear of death or imprisonment, how they came to Thailand, and how they try to survive there. The names of individuals have been changed, except where noted otherwise, to protect the those interviewed.
Every day in Bangkok, Assed takes the long way to work to avoid police checkpoints. When immigration raids increase, he waits until four in the morning to go home because they never happen that late. He then sleeps for two hours and leaves in case the police come in the morning. Some nights he sleeps on the floor of the restaurant where he works. He barricades the door with tables and chairs and watches the road for police on motorcycle in case he has to escape quickly. Every Friday he has a Thai friend deliver fresh food to his wife who is locked in Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center. His caution, paranoia, and ritual have kept him safe from also being trapped inside.
“I married my wife in Pakistan, she is from Muslim religion, I am from Christian religion and she became Christian also. After that some people tried to kill me for some time. God kept me alive, and then I came to Thailand.” Assed explained.
Assed and his wife, Saaihra, met through his father's medical practice where he was employed in a town nearby Lahore. She approached him and confided her feelings for him. He was apprehensive at first because of the problems he knew would arise from a Christian man being with a Muslim woman in Pakistan, but he says she persisted and he fell in love also. The two would meet in secret at night, in hotels they arrived at separately, or climbing in each others' windows while their families were sleeping. Eventually they were married, and as Assed had predicted their marriage sparked outrage, from Saaihra's family in particular. “The uncle of my wife, he attacked me with a knife and pistol, he hit me in the head—with the pistol, the muzzle, in the backside of my head they hit,” he said as he showed the scar on his head where he had been attacked. Assed was fortunate to escape.
Assed was attacked a second time while he was driving, after his family had been harassed and threatened by Saaihra's uncle and cousins. They shot at his car as he was headed to the clinic where he practiced medicine. “Some police man who knows my brother saved me. Then I go back my home, after my father says, ‘you go to Islamabad.’” Assed left on his father's advice and insistence. “I lived for two years in Karachi. After I married I went to Karachi, which is very far away. After two years I moved to Islamabad, but one day I went back to my family's home and everybody hated me. When I was at the bus stop, my wife's cousins, my wife uncles and some Muslims from some militant group, they beat me. They broke my glasses and hit my head. Everybody hit me from behind, and then my face was all covered in blood. I ran away and everyone followed. I ran, and I went to one butcher shop nearby. I took a knife to defend myself, and the butcher was one of my patients when I worked in the clinic. He said to me 'Doctor, don't worry, no problem,' and all the men from the butcher shop picked up knives and chased off the men attacking me. They saved my life. Then I left. I moved to Oman.”
Assed's stay in Oman was short lived. “You know, one and a half years I lived there. Oman doesn't have family status, or nationality for foreigners. Oman is also a Muslim country. Someone there knew very well that I married a Muslim lady, and some people there also angry about this. At this time also my mother died and I decided to go back to Pakistan. Then someone saw me back in in my house, at the graveyard for my mother. They were threatening again, threatening when I was driving in my car. Then my father said I had to leave for Thailand.”
Assed arrived in Bangkok with his wife in the fall of 2013, without work or much savings, after having been a successful doctor only three years earlier. He found work in a restaurant owned by a Pakistani Ahmadi Muslim who was sympathetic as his people are also persecuted and killed in Pakistan for their faith. Assed had to move in secret constantly after his visa expired. He lived in an apartment complex mostly occupied by other asylum seekers from Pakistan and Somalia. While he was at work one day the complex was raided by the police and his wife was arrested. She has remained imprisoned in Bangkok's IDC to this day.
The restaurant closed soon after. Assed said the restaurants owner poorly managed money, and quickly realized he couldn't afford to keep his business open any longer. He had been making 20,000 Baht a month at that time, which is about $600. He found work at an Indian Restaurant in central Bangkok where his pay was less than half what he had been making before, “Now 7,000 Baht a month because I am illegal. Other people will take advantage of me because I have immigration problem, so they use me. I use 3,000 Baht to pay for my apartment, 2,000 for travel to work and in the city, and for food I spend 5,000. It is hard to live like this, but I manage it.”
Assed has managed to make extra money for himself and his wife by buying electronics in the markets and reselling them to his friends and people living in the apartment complexes. He eventually saved enough money to pay for his wife's bail, but by the time he had the IDC closed the bail inexplicably, and he has been left waiting for a time when he will be allowed to pay to have her freed.
While Assed found honest work, others have reportedly resorted to more nefarious means to survive, such as money laundering, smuggling, selling drugs, and prostitution. Within the Pakistani Christian community there are persistent rumors of human trafficking, police informants, and agents of the Pakistani Government. These rumors are extremely difficult to substantiate, and in a climate of constant paranoia their source is extremely understandable.
In May 2016, Assed was denied refugee status by the UNHCR.
The Pervaiz Family:
(The Pervaiz family requested to be named in order to help highlight their story)
Roshan Pervaiz was a journalist, organizer, and Christian leader in Lahore, Pakistan. He prides himself in his ability to combine these talents, and at one time struggled to use them to promote interfaith harmony inside of Pakistan.His daughter Neelam recalled, “My father is a pastor, so we organized a gospel award show in 2006 to appreciate the Christian community, and also to show love and peace between Christians and Muslims, but the Muslims didn't like that and they started fighting my family.”
Tensions grew in Lahore over the years for Pastor Roshan and his family. Christians, he says, are unwelcome second class citizens. Roshan recalls often being referred to as “Chuhra”—a term in Urdu meaning street sweeper—which every Christian Pakistani interviewed for this story has said is a common slur they also experienced. The implication is that Christians are a lower class, deserving only undesirable work. Roshan recalled, “In the Hadith it tells of an old woman who harassed Mohammed by throwing her trash at him as he walked, and he swept the street clean of it with patience. How can they then call me a sweeper as if I am lower than them when their own prophet showed this humility?”
Roshan's son, Faraz, noted also how antagonism and Islamophobia from the West worsened life for himself and other Christians living inside of Pakistan. In Particular, he recalled a worsening climate for Pakistani Christians after an American Pastor, Terry Jones, hosted a publicity stunt where he planned to burn a large number of copies of the Quran, “If Pastor Terry burns the Quran in the United States, what happens? The Pakistani people, they say 'You are Christian, you are relative of Terry?' Because of that pastor we have to face the discrimination and persecution. We accept this as we are one body in Christ, but we are never heard by the United States or another Christian country because they are deaf, because they can't hear our cry. They did something wrong against Islam over there, but we have to face the consequences in Pakistan. They kill Christians in Pakistan, so we are fighting their fight, but they are not listening, no one is responsible. This is my request to United States: Because you do something against Islam, we have to pay the penalty of your mistake. If you want to fight with them, you must go Syria, Iraq, fight over there, don't fight by sitting in safety. We have to take the violence from them.”
Events worsened for Roshan and his family to a point where they were unbearable. A group of men in plain clothes stormed his house, grabbed him, and beat his son, Mukhzan, who tried to rescue his father. For a day Roshan's family believed he had been kidnapped by militants, until the following day when the men who had abducted Roshan identified themselves as police.
Roshan remembers vividly his arrest and detention,
“They said I committed heresy. They take money and release me. It was extortion and they kept the money. The case was finished when they took the money. I was in jail for seven days with no charge. I am not mentioned in the case, but they captured me, hurt me very badly, harassed me, and beat me, beat my son Mukhzan. In the jail they hung me by my feet with no shirt and no pants and they beat me with leather. They hurt me very badly. After one week we got money and I was able to get out, circumstances and matters were finished, and we left. The government told me because I am Christian we have problem. I am Christian and human rights activist. They say they don't need these things.”
Roshan decided to leave Pakistan with his family as soon as possible, and within a week they left for Thailand. The choice to apply for refugee status in Bangkok was calculated. They had been told that those who went to Malaysia often waited longer, and they felt as though India would reject them because of their Pakistani origin. So they arrived, applied for refugee status, and began the long wait in hiding among a community in constant fear of arrest and detention.
In the summer of 2014, Thailand began an intensified effort to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants from Vietnam and Cambodia, which carried over well into 2015. The raids at this time did not differentiate between economic migrants and asylum seekers. These police raids increased even more following the bombing of Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok, later said to have been carried out by Chinese Uyghurs in revenge for immigration crackdowns.
In March of 2015 almost all of Pastor Roshan's family was arrested and detained in the Bangkok IDC. Only himself and his son Faraz remained free, while his wife, son, four daughters, and all of his grandchildren were imprisoned. They remained there for seven months, until their bail was paid by a Pakistani Christian Charity working in Bangkok. Roshan's son, Mukhzan, recalled the children constantly being sick, many of them having skin diseases.
“No medicine can be brought in. There is a small dispensary there, but with restrictions. There is one doctor, but their prescription is not good.” Accounts shared with me by several sources who were inside the IDC tell of prisoners in there becoming incredibly sick, poorly attended to, and in many cases dying there because they were untreated. Roshan's own granddaughter at this time became sick several times, and was lucky to survive.
Robertson of Human Rights Watch said of the Thai crackdown on immigrants, “The Thai government has obviously decided that cleaning up the country also means going after anyone that has overstayed their visa and is doing so in a crude, ‘sweep them all up’ way that doesn’t recognize the rights of asylum seekers or refugees. The ruling NCPO military junta has also put a lot of pressure on the Immigration department amid revelations of officers’ malfeasance that was exposed by the recently retired national police chief—and so Immigration is responding by taking a hard line and conducting a lot of raids. Since most asylum seekers from countries in South Asia and Africa enter as tourists and then overstay their visas while applying to UNHCR for refugee status, they are vulnerable to arrest at any time, any place, for any reason. Like all official crackdowns in Thailand, there is a mixture of internal and external motivations, and of course, the Bangkok bombing has also concentrated Thai officials’ attitudes on the mission of keeping out foreigners that the authorities think might be dangerous.”
During this time, Roshan and Faraz connected with a church in the United States called the Refuge of David, that supplied them with a video camera to document their struggle, and appeal for help for their community. Pastor Roshan and Faraz formed their own extension of this church out of a Christian center in central Bangkok, growing a large congregation that met every Sunday, with nearly a hundred attendees risking arrest to participate. Unfortunately, the Refuge of David does seem to be an especially Islamophobic church, but for the sake of honesty, they are also one of the only organizations I saw from the West which did offer direct aid to the people living there.
Rohan and Faraz spoke of many Christian and Western organizations that came to visit their church, but they say only Refuge of David has offered any help to them or to the Christian asylum seekers in Thailand. They recalled incidents where Christian organizations from the United States and Australia came to visit, took several photos of children from their church, even trying to get pictures of the children crying, and later used the photos to solicit funds for their own organizations.1
When Roshan's family was released from the IDC, they were given documents stating that their bail and overstay fines had been paid and that they may not be arrested again for the same offence for two years. The documents, however, state that they are not allowed to work during this time. Roshan and Faraz similarly were able to save enough money to cover their overstay fines, which they paid to the immigration department that gave them the same documentation allowing them freer movement for two years inside the kingdom.
Like all asylum seeker families, money is extremely difficult to come by, and what rations are offered by local churches are very limited. Pastor Roshan and his family survive on what they can, and each night the families in their apartment complex pull their resources together to make a meal for each other which they share. Pulling together what they have and sharing company together seems to make surviving a little easier, and less alone. When they eat, they laugh also. They tell stories, and they talk about who in the community is in need, and work to find ways to help them.
The videos that Pastor Roshan posted gained him some prominence and attention. As before, this brought him trouble with the Pakistani Government. According to Pastor Roshan, he went to the Pakistani Embassy in Bangkok to issue a complaint regarding affairs within the community. At this time, according to a statement he issued to the UNHCR, Roshan was accused by the Embassy of being an agent for RAW (The Indian Intelligence Agency). Roshan says they refused to return his passport, and stated that the Pakistani Intelligence Agency, ISI, was aware of him, and could at any time seize his entire family's documents. Finally, he states that they warned him never to return to Pakistan. The Pakistani ISI is an especially feared organization in South Asia for their work within Pakistan, and also for alleged ties to terrorist groups inside of Afghanistan, and Kashmir.
In the Winter of 2016 Roshan's family, like many, was denied refugee status by the UNHCR. The UNHCR questioned the story of why they fled, and why they were more at risk than other Christians who remained behind from their same community. They have appealed this decision and are currently awaiting to hear the results.
- 1. In the process of completing this piece, several Christian charities highlighting the persecution of Christians in Pakistan were contacted to try to connect help with those in need. Each organization declined or did not respond, with one stating that they believed Christians in Pakistan should remain in place and face the brunt of persecution while a legal case of Genocide is prepared for the UN on their behalf. It should be noted that several Christian organizations inside Thailand do offer help to those in need, typically in the form of food rations and in some cases covering medical costs. While most of the churches and organizations offering aid in Bangkok known to the author are independent, the Jesuit Refugee Services have been particularly active in giving aid and help to those in need inside of the city.