Since 2009, an estimated 12,000 religious minorities have fled Pakistan due to religious persecution. Many of these refugees are Christians, a community coming under increasing pressure in one of the world’s most dangerous and hostile nations. Christians are often forced to flee Pakistan due to threats and other forms of intense persecution. Fleeing to Thailand because it’s easy to received a tourist visa, these Christians find life a refugees difficult in the extreme.
2/27/2015 Pakistan (The Express Tribune) – They were a middle-class family in Pakistan, living in a comfortable three-bedroom apartment with a modern kitchen and a PlayStation for the three kids, reports The Associated Press.
Fluent in English, the father ran his own moving company while the mother taught art.
A death threat signed by an extremist group with three bullets attached compelled the Christian family to leave it all behind 18 months ago.
Now they live in a barren room in Bangkok, where the children share a double bed and the parents sleep on the floor. They cook on a propane burner on a tiny balcony.
A picture of Jesus, the source of their solace and their troubles, hangs on the inside of the door.
This, increasingly, is the life of the asylum-seeker and refugee.
More than half the 14 million refugees and asylum-seekers under the mandate of the UN refugee agency do not live in the camps they are often associated with.
A growing number live in cities and towns around the world. Across Asia, from India to the Pacific islands, there are about half a million such “urban refugees,” according to the agency.
The Pakistani family no longer fears for their lives, but they face other fears like arrest, hunger and the possibility that they will never be able to live freely.
Unable to work legally and with no legal status in Thailand, they and others like them must remain mostly hidden while they scrape by on odd jobs and donations from churches, aid groups and individuals.
Their children, all elementary-school age, do not go to school and spend their entire day indoors.
“We just wanted to save our lives,” said the father, who has overstayed his visa and like the dozen other asylum-seekers interviewed for this story asked not to be identified for fear of arrest. “We didn’t know anything when we arrived. Now we are just trying to survive.”
Many asylum-seekers pin their hopes on an elusive prize: resettlement in a third country such as the US or Canada through a process overseen by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees.
That can take five years or more, and it often doesn’t happen at all.
The surge of urban refugees challenges reluctant host countries like Thailand, which in the past has allowed refugees from surrounding countries into border camps, but doesn’t legally recognize asylum-seekers or refugees.
It’s relatively easy to obtain a Thai tourist visa.
One reason is that the number of asylum-seekers in Bangkok has jumped several-fold to more than 8,000 over the past few years, according to numbers from the UNHCR.
The biggest and fastest-growing contingent here is from Pakistan, experts say, while other big groups come from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Somalia and Syria.
When they land, many are shocked to discover they face arrest once their visas run out.
They expect the UNHCR will protect them, but refugee advocates say Thai police generally ignore UN letters declaring them to be “persons of concern.”
Thailand never signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that protects refugees’ rights; neither have neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, where thousands more asylum-seekers live.
So these urban refugees scrape by in limbo, freer than those in camp settings but in some ways more vulnerable.
“This is the future,” said Mireille Girard, the Thailand representative for the UNHCR. “We really have to adjust to providing assistance in urban environments. “
Despite the hardships, many say they will never return home. They are too afraid. “We’ll just face the same sort of threats again,” said the mother. “I’m not willing to sacrifice my children for that.”
In Pakistan, the couple and some Catholic friends helped run a small, free school for poor children.
One morning in 2013, a warning signed by an militant group was slipped under the door of the school office.
“Stop giving missionary education to Muslim children. Otherwise, we will shoot you and your children,” said the threat, which was viewed by The Associated Press.
Ten days later, the school received another warning, only this time it was with bullets.
The school volunteers filed a complaint to the police; the AP viewed a copy of the document, which had been stamped by local police to indicate they had received it.
The couple’s account was corroborated by several people contacted by the AP. The couple said the school never taught Christianity to Muslim children, but did teach Bible stories and prayers to the Christian kids when their Muslim classmates were not there.
They said that sometimes the Muslim kids would hang around, hear the prayers and recite them at home. Pakistan’s religious minorities are increasingly persecuted – not only Christians but Hindus and Ahmadis.
They say that although no one has been executed under the country’s harsh blasphemy law, it has been used to threaten non-Muslims and incite mob violence. In November, a Christian couple was killed by a mob for allegedly desecrating the Quran.
An estimated 12,000 religious minorities have fled Pakistan since 2009, according to Farrukh Saif, who heads a minority advocacy group that supports asylum-seekers in Bangkok.
The threatened couple fled to Thailand because friends said it was easy to get a tourist visa and because other Christians had gone there.
“People told us, ‘Save your lives first, then worry about the other things, “’ the father said. After hiding for a month, they packed two suitcases of their belongings and boarded a midnight flight for Bangkok. When they arrived in the steamy Thai capital, relief quickly turned to anxiety.