Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
When we hear about the ‘refugee crisis’ in the media, it often refers to the rising number of people making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to the European Union to seek asylum. We are aware of Lebanon’s vast camps, Hungary’s closed borders, Istanbul’s cold streets. However, there is another branch to this tree that no-one seems to notice, namely the enormous influx of refugees into South East Asia.
I recently went to Thailand where I attended a church service made up of Pakistani Christian refugees. If this service were taking place in their homeland the pastor and his congregation could be risking their lives.
“We fled from Pakistan because of persecution. We had a very good life over there. People who were involved with terrorism took money from us because we are doing business. They know that we are Christian and that’s why they were attacking our business. If we make ourselves like Muslims they are happy with us and wouldn’t have any problems with us. The problem is with our faith.”
These are the words of ‘Jalal’ (*name changed), a former paramedic who I spoke with after the service. Most of the refugees who come to Bangkok are what you might call ‘middle-class’ refugees. In other words, they are people who have money in Pakistan. The poorer ones simply cannot afford to leave. But they have good reason for wanting to. Back in Pakistan, conversion to Christianity is seen by many Muslims as a huge insult to Islam. Suicide bombers and gunmen have killed hundreds of Christians as they worship in church or celebrate Christian festivals. The country’s blasphemy laws have been used as a smokescreen to murder Christians. Others have been imprisoned. Others sentenced to death. So you can see why many Christians opt to flee.
Pakistan’s border countries are Islamic, war-torn, communist or politically unfriendly. Cheap flights and easily-obtained holiday visas enable entire families to enter Thailand posing as tourists. Furthermore, the UNHCR is based in Bangkok so many believe their voices will be heard more quickly by virtue of proximity. The reality is the UNHCR is overwhelmed by applicants. UN sources say there are only eight specialist staff in Thailand and over 100,000 asylum seekers, including an estimated 11,500 from Pakistan. It takes several years to even get an interview with the UN and even if one’s claim is successful – an outcome which is becoming increasingly unlikely – the process of relocation to a third country takes many more years. Meanwhile, from the 31st onward these refugees have transitioned from ‘tourist’ to ‘law-breaker’. Thailand has signed up for tourism – the beaches of Koh Samui are a holiday-maker’s paradise. Travellers are welcome. But the country hasn’t signed up to a UN international agreement to take in foreigners seeking asylum. Under Thai law anyone without a valid visa to stay is criminalised. The message is clear: asylum seekers are not welcome.
“My Father was scared for the life of his children. So we all came to Thailand. Again we faced a lot of problems . We are worried about going to IDC [Immigration Detention Centre]. That is why we want to make ourselves like tourists. We have bags and cameras. We are scared of police and immigration.”
Whilst I was in Bangkok there were rumours going around that there would be another police round-up. The last one was in December where more than 100 refugees were taken to the IDC. Jalal showed me his only lifeline: a UN document certifying him as an internationally recognised person of concern, given to all registered asylum seekers. This means that he, and others with this card, should not be arrested or detained for seeking asylum. However, this doesn’t often stop the arrests.
“We don’t have visas but we are surviving with the UNHCR card. Normally police just ask for money. If we don’t pay they send us to the IDC straight away. It is happening to many
families. They ask for passports but we are scared to show them that because we don’t have visas. We just show them the UNHCR card. We are registered with the United Nations. They are saying they are helping refugees but in Thailand the refugees have more difficulties. We cannot work, we cannot study because we do not have legal documentation.”
Some do work illegally and unofficially. But this means they are exploited. They will often work the worst jobs for very long hours with very little pay. Most live in very basic accommodation: one room flats that are at the very bottom end of the housing market. Seven or eight family members of all generations will occupy this tiny space. I asked Jalal if he’d be better off in Pakistan where he speaks the language, is qualified and thus employable. His reply was emphatic.
“No, it is not safe for us. Even if we went to IDC we want to survive there. It’s horrible but we cannot die. But we face persecution in Pakistan.”
Other families told stories about family members who had been murdered or who had disappeared in Pakistan. One family with three teenage girls and one widowed mother made it clear that they would be raped, murdered or probably both by their uncles. Their crime was converting to Christianity. Therefore, the UNHCR is right in saying that ‘increased detention of asylum seekers has proven to have extremely limited deterrent value but carries significant costs: both monetary and reputational for the Royal Thai government.’
That being said, conditions of the IDC have been described by human rights groups as ‘inhumane’. Cameras and journalists are not allowed inside which lends credence to this diagnosis. I was told by the pastor of Christ Church, Bangkok that the cells are horribly overcrowded, about 100 in each, with barely enough space to lie down at night. And yet, for some Pakistani Christians there is a worse fate still, namely the notorious Thai prisons where real criminals are sent. Adil tells me:
“My mother and my sister spent one month in jail because they didn’t have a visa. They didn’t go to IDC but to a criminal jail in December. Nobody came to help. After one month I hired a good lawyer and we fought the case ourselves without the help of the UNHCR. This whole month my family couldn’t sleep. And we are just praying to the Lord and then after one month the court released my family.”
With the help and prayers of our supporters and partners, Release International is making efforts to tackle this problem at its root through our projects in Pakistan. On a personal, practical and pastoral level we aim to support Christian prisoners and their families, former Muslims in hiding and female believers who are disempowered and vulnerable. On a political level, we call on the Pakistani government to reform its notoriously misused blasphemy laws, whilst supporting a group of lawyers who work to uphold the rights of religious minorities in the land.
However, change is not forthcoming, as can be seen by the vast swathes of people fleeing their homeland. It is important that we support these people also so we have decided to partner with a new organisation, Life Raft, which presently supports around 400 refugees, many of whom are Pakistani Christians.
On board the Life Raft
The aim of this organisation is to partner with the churches of Bangkok, enabling individuals in the congregation to minister to a specific refugee family or individual. Therefore, for every refugee helped there is someone in the church who knows them, and is walking alongside them. As an organisation they have three specific areas of focus.
Firstly, the ‘Learn-Serve-Teach’ programme which encourages refugees to use their time constructively. Many refugees simply see Thailand as a transit country. However, with the wait for asylum getting longer and the number of rejection cases getting higher, this mentality is extremely unhelpful. Therefore, in order to qualify for resources and shelter from Life Raft, refugees have to be a little proactive, e.g. language-learning, serving the church, teaching their children, integrating into Thai society etc. etc.
Secondly, Life Raft provides educational resources. Refugee children are stateless and thus find it almost impossible to attend public school. Life Raft provides scholarships for some of these children so that they can get an education and provides other families with resources to home-school their kids. They also work with adults, helping them to attend online seminary, or learn English, amongst other things.
Finally, they visit the IDC, bringing food, water and toiletries to the refugees there.
I noted, whilst listening to Chris, Evette and Tim as they explained their vision and policies to refugees, that their framework is entirely Christian. They were keen to remind these vulnerable people of their status before God, of their dignity as His image-bearers and their importance as His ambassadors wherever they happen to be. That is why their goal for each refugee is to be either learning, teaching or growing in some capacity.
It was very clear to see how difficult it was for many of these families to adopt this mind-set. Some of them have been quite wealthy in Pakistan and find the adjustment extremely difficult. That being said, it was moving to see these believers come together in worship. They were a family to one another. In Jalal’s words:
“We believe we are suffering in a lot of terrible situations. But when we came to the Jesus Christ he gave us hope and new life. If we were not Christian and not with the Christ then maybe we would kill ourselves. Because of all this persecution. And when you have everything in life and then you have nothing, what’s going to happen in your heart? But when listen to the Word of God and listen to His Word then we feel a new hope in Christ.”
Please do pray for and / or give toward Life Raft’s ministry, if you can by going here or calling us on 01689 823 491.