Christian women hold pictures of Shahbaz Bhatti, the slain Pakistani minister of minorities, as they demand a sentence for his killers during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan, April 6, 2011. CNS photo/Athar Hussain, Reuters

Thai crackdown on refugees targets Pakistani Christians

  • November 30, 2018

In a secret location, under the watchful guard of Pakistan’s military, Asia Bibi and her family are hoping Canada or some other country will take them in before gangs searching from house to house discover her. 

Bibi is in danger from Muslim extremists angered by Pakistan’s Supreme Court clearing Bibi of blasphemy charges stemming from a 2009 arrest where the farmhand was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

But as that drama plays out on the world stage, another less celebrated group of Pakistani Christians is caught up in the intricacies of the international refugee system while potential sponsors are lined up waiting to help them start a new life in Canada.

The Toronto-based International Christian Voice — which advocates largely for Pakistani Christians — wants to help resettle Pakistani Christians currently in hiding in Bangkok, Thailand, or, even worse, languishing in overcrowded, feted cells Thai authorities have set up for people they consider illegal immigrants. ICV has up to 150 potential sponsors ready to step in, with help from the Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto

Thailand never signed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and does not recognize asylum seekers or refugees. In October, Thai police began rounding up Pakistanis and others who had overstayed their tourist visas. Up until October, these people could stay out of jail by paying bail and reporting regularly to police. 

In recent years a trickle of Pakistani Christians has become a steady flow of people with relatively few options if they fear violence from their neighbours. Once in Thailand, most hoped to continue on to Western countries such as Canada where they have friends and relatives. But the Pakistani Christians have had trouble obtaining an official designation as refugees from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Thailand.

“We also have been hearing a lot from people concerning the crackdown on persons who have entered Thailand illegally or who have overstayed their visas,” UNHCR Canada spokesperson Gisele Nyembwe told The Catholic Register in an email. “Although the crackdown is not directed at persons of concern to the UNHCR as such, we have received reports that they are inevitably being caught in this net.”

Nyembwe did not answer questions about why so many Pakistani Christians have been turned down for refugee status.

The problem, according to International Christian Voice chair Peter Bhatti, is that the formal, legalistic UNHCR interview process intimidates and confuses many of the Christian refugees, who arrive in Thailand from small villages with little education.

“I have done 170 interviews (in Thailand). I go to their homes and find out their personal stories — why they fled from Pakistan, what their circumstances are,” said Bhatti. “What I find out... is that these people are mostly not very professional, not really very educated
... They cannot explain what happened to them.”

Sending these people back to Pakistan would be sending them into danger, even if they don’t go back to their home villages, Bhatti said.

“They don’t have any place, anywhere in Pakistan. The extremist network is very strong in Pakistan. Wherever they go, they are easily found out. There is no safe haven in any part of Pakistan for them,” he said.

The Canadian government is “monitoring the situation very closely,” said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon. 

The priority right now is to prevent Thai authorities from sending refugees back to Pakistan if they are already in the process of being resettled in Canada — waiting for interviews, obtaining medical certificates or waiting on security background checks before they can fly to Canada.

“We cannot commit to specific timing for processing or arrival,” Fenelon said. “Sponsors are encouraged to advise the department should any of their applicants be affected by the immigration raids in Thailand. The UNHCR and IRCC work together to expedite the processing of recognized refugees in Canada’s resettlement process who are at imminent risk of refoulement (the term for returning refugees to their country of origin).”

But Bhatti’s greatest worry isn’t the Pakistani Christians who have managed to be certified as refugees. Rather, he’s worried about the ones stuck in detention centres with no status whatsoever.

“Most of them, their lives are in danger (if they are sent back). They may be killed. The women may be raped and converted from Christian to Muslim — forced marriage to Muslim men, which quite often happens.” 

The fear Pakistani Christians are experiencing comes across in emails they are sending to any Church-related organization in the West they can find on the Internet.

“I come to Thailand because I was in danger in Pakistan. Some groups want to kill me and forcing me to change my religion now,” Gershon Joseph wrote in an email to this reporter. “We want to go in any safe country where me and my family will live peacefully in Christ… Sponsorship is the only way to get out of Thailand, if you will sponsor us so we can get out easily from Thailand.”

The Office for Refugees wants the Canadian government to create a special program to bring Pakistani Christian refugees out of Thailand, said ORAT executive director Deacon Rudy Ovcjak. While the archdiocese can use some of its annual allocation of refugee spots from IRCC to sponsor Pakistani Christians, the vast majority of those places are already spoken for with refugees from elsewhere. ORAT would have no trouble finding sponsors if Canada would designate extra spots for Pakistani Christians, Ovcjak said.

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