A BBC investigation has looked into a matter that has been ignored for years by UNHCR which is the brutal condition of Pakistani Christians seeking asylum in Thailand.
In a recent documentary, Chris Rogers reports for Our World: Thailand Asylum Crackdown on the BBC News Channel on 27 and 28 February at 21:30 GMT and BBC World News starting on 26 February.
The documentary starts with sounds of praise and worship carried out at a Pakistani Christian gathering on Sunday in Thailand.
The prayer is led by Pastor Joshua, a former Muslim who fled from Pakistan and is now seeking asylum in Thailand.
“My bone was broken – the one right above the heart. And they tried to cut my arm off,” he says.
“My sister was murdered, she was burned alive, just because she spoke the word ‘God’. They hate the word ‘God’ so much. She was burned for this reason alone.”
Thousands of Pakistani Christians left Pakistan in the recent years due to the growing religious intolerance in Pakistan. After major incidents like burning of Joseph Colony, Gojra Christian settlement and a young couple in a brick kiln, Pakistani Christians feel insecure in the country where everything they have can be lost in a second if they are accused of blasphemy.
The Pakistani Christians head to Thailand because it’s easy to enter the country on a short-term tourist visa and in Pakistan’s hostile neighbourhood there are few safe options closer to hand.
But there is hardly a welcoming committee in Thailand. The country doesn’t want asylum seekers from anywhere. It is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, and anyone without a valid visa or a work permit risks being arrested, charged with illegal immigration and jailed.
Thailand has allowed UN refugee agency, the UNHCR to investigate the cases of these asylum seekers but the main issue arises when UNHCR takes years to investigate these cases resulting in the detainment of hundreds. Many of these families say they’ve been waiting years to be assessed by the UN and they have no access to work, education or healthcare.
As they await the outcome of their case, thousands of Pakistani asylum seekers set up temporary home in dingy rooms in a network of tower blocks on the outskirts of Bangkok. People who were once comfortably-off professionals arrive with just a few possessions, their rent and food paid for by local Christian charities.
And they live in constant fear.
The police conducts regular raids and arrests men, women and children and send them to Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) where they are kept in “large, stiflingly hot room, crammed with hundreds of asylum seekers pressing their faces against a wire-mesh internal barrier.”
“The men are semi-naked. Unaware we are BBC journalists, they tell us it’s the only way to keep cool in the overcrowded cells they’re kept in. The women cradle their children and babies. Many complain their children are suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting because of poor sanitation and dirty drinking water. The room gets noisy as the inmates cry out to the visiting charity workers for their help to get released, but food and clean drinking water are all they can offer.”
In a statement to the BBC, the UNHCR admits it is struggling. “Amid the context of today’s acute global humanitarian funding crunch, it is correct that at present we are facing long delays in the processing of asylum claims with funding for Thailand at only a third of the level needed.” But it adds that it has managed to prevent the arrest of more than 400 “people of concern to UNHCR” in the last six months, by insisting on their status as registered asylum seekers.
Meanwhile the Thai government complains the UN’s inactivity is “creating far-reaching impacts on its security” – a reference to Thai fears that immigrants from Pakistan could be involved in terrorism – “leading to a number of arrests of illegal immigrants in the past year”.
BBC’s notice of this important issue is highly commendable and might serve to bring to notice this grave issue that’s costing human lives.