This article was written as a result of a research done in Bangkok with a fifty Christian Pakistani refugee families through the efforts of three independent organizations and five local missionaries.
Thailand has been a land of new hope for many people in Asia. Historically, the country has been receiving immigrants from many neighboring countries for decades. People coming from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, and others, each person is looking for a better life.
This migration movement implies great economic and social changes for the Thai people and for that reason many protectionist measures were taken by the local government.
However, there is a huge difference between the terms “immigrants” and “refugees”. To fully understand the struggles that many refugees are going through in Thailand, we need to know the difference between these two distinct terms and status.
Immigrants are defined as individuals who leave their country by their own will, mostly looking for better living conditions. The vast majority of immigrant migration happens for economic, social, political and even religious reasons.
However, refugees are individuals who were forced to leave their country. Commonly they are fleeing war, natural disasters, religious, political or ethnic persecution. These are people have had their basic human rights violated and are unable to remain in their country of origin, therefore being forced to take refuge in another country.
This is the situation that many Pakistanis are currently living in Thailand. Unfortunately, because of the lack of understanding of the distinction between immigrants and refugees, Pakistani Christians have been forgotten by the Thai government and have received inhuman and unfair treatment. And not only from the Thai Government, but also the UN (United Nations) has been accused by many Pakistanis, of denying to many families the only hope that they have, the possibility to be resettled in a third country.
Then why Thailand Does Not Help Asylum Seekers?
Before we dive into this subject, another important distinction that we must understand is “asylum seeker” or “asylum applicant”. These are the terms used to identify the individual who is requesting recognition of refugee status to a government or to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). An applicant is not yet considered as a refugee but is under documental and testimonial evaluation. After this process, the asylum seeker will be granted an answer recognizing or denying their status.
According to official data, there are over 599,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand. The country has five UNHCR offices, support from various non-profit organizations and churches. However, in spite of the apparent abundant refugee support structure in the nation, Thailand has not signed an International Agreement with regards to this topic and consequently has no legislation whatsoever to attend to these needs.
Therefore, Thailand does not recognize asylum seekers or refugees, and through the government’s perspectives, these are considered illegal immigrants. As a result, there are thousands of asylum seekers that have been put in jail unjustly at the IDC’s (Immigration Detention Center) where there are very clear violations of human rights, including against children.
All of the asylum seekers are currently in what is known as “overstay” status. The government recently approved legislation states that whoever is in “overstay” status for more than a five-year time limit (most of the Pakistani people fall under this situation) will be banned of reentering the country for ten years. And due to this “overstay” status, it is impossible to acquire a visa to go to any other country. Taken into account that many of these refugees fled due to religious persecution means that returning to Pakistan would classify them to be prosecuted for treason and be arrested upon arrival at the airport – making their situation hopeless.=
Thailand’s current political system is undergoing a transition from a military regime to a democracy. According to various local organizations interviewed, this political instability makes it unlikely that the Thai Government will get involved or develop any action to receive refugees anytime soon.
Why did the Pakistanis come to Thailand?
All of the interviewed families allege having fled from Pakistan due to religious persecution, having being accused of blasphemy. In general, these accusations were made with the purpose to drive Christians to lose their jobs or any other activity that represented a good income, to retaliate pastors and local church leaders or because of a conversion from Islam to Christianity. There have also been reports of threats made by terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Islamic Republic of Pakistan: The name of the country already indicates the predominant religion and the level of religious intolerance. The country is in the top 5 of countries with the highest level of religious persecution in the world, occupying the 4th place in the ranking, according to the Open Doors World Watch List.
Five years ago, a rumor that Pakistani asylum seekers were getting their refugee status with UNHCR in less than one year hit Pakistan. Because of the ease to acquire a tourist visa to come to Thailand a lot of people migrated hoping to be resettled through UN’s program. But unfortunately, that expectation never came true. Among Christian asylum seeker community, around 85% get their cases rejected by UNHCR.
Thailand has never been considered as the final destination for these Pakistanis. It is just a “transition country” to get a refugee status which would allow them to look for resettlement in a third country.
To be continued…