A Catholic asylum seeker's story
Forced to flee Pakistan, he faces a long road to legitimacy
Simon's asylum application with the UNHCR will take years to process
Simon was driving home from soccer practice when an incident happened that would change his life.
While stopped at a traffic light, a motorcycle stopped next to him and the driver called over. “Dirty Christian, we get you.” From the corner of his eye, Simon saw a gun pointing at him. "In the same moment I stepped on the gas and drove away as fast as I could," he said, "but they shot at me. I was lucky to get away."
Simon is a practising Christian. Until recently, he lived in Pakistan, studied economics, supported his parish and led a youth group. He liked his life and country, even if it was hard for him as a Catholic to find a proper job. Around three million people in Pakistan are Christians, or two percent of the population. Since the assasination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 the repression against religious minorities has come to the fore.
"Blessed is he who is persecuted for my sake, Jesus says in the Bible -- this phrase has always given me strength,” Simon said.
He had resigned himself to accept everyday discrimination. But then attacks against Christians increased. Last March a mob of Muslims attacked a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, burning down about 180 houses and two churches. In September, a twin suicide bomb attack took place in Peshawar in which 81 people were killed and 130 injured. It was the deadliest attack on the Christian minority in the history of Pakistan, and was the turning point for Simon.
After these attacks Simon was no longer a willing victim. Together with other young Christians he organized practical help for victims and protested against the violence. He also raised his voice in the media, which led to death threats.
The incident on the motorcycle was when it started to get truly frightening for Simon. Two men saying they were from the police came to his home and told him to stop his commitment to his church. Again Simon was stopped by men on a motorcycle threatening him. After these incidents, Simon packed his suitcase and left behind everything he loves, his family, his friends, the parish -- his life.
Now the 30-year-old sits in Bangkok in a small room and waits. Simon went to the office of the UN refugee agency in Bangkok and dropped his asylum application in a box. "Death threats" he wrote as the reason for his escape. But it will take four to six months until he will be registered by the UNHCR.
Currently there are around 2,000 refugees and 2,000 registered asylum seekers in Bangkok – and hundreds more awaiting registration. Most of them come from Vietnam, Sri Lanka and since last year in increasing numbers from Pakistan.
“This fits with a deteriorating rights climate for religious minorities from there,“ said Christopher Eades, director of Legal Services at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Bangkok.
JRS provides a limited amount of financial assistance to help with housing, medical and food costs, runs support groups and provides individual counseling services to refugees who have survived torture or trauma.
The main issues for urban refugees in Thailand are the recognition procedures and potential threats to their safety. So JRS also provides informational tips on how to survive in Bangkok, how to stay safe, and how to reduce the risk of arrest.
Because Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 convention or its 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees, it relies on its own immigration laws to regulate all foreign nationals including refugees and asylum seekers. Simon entered the country pretending to be a tourist.
“I experienced all this as if it wasn't me,“ Simon said. “My thoughts were with my parents all the time. I'm still frightened, that now they can be attacked by the people that want to hurt me.”
The moment his tourist visa expires, Simon could be arrested and detained as an overstayer. Additionally he is not entitled to any financial, housing or medical support from the UNHCR until he is registered, and even then, this will be minimal.
And he will need to be almost endlessly patient. Pakistanis like Simon probably have to wait until June 2015 before the UNHCR will interview them as part of their refugee status determination procedure. Then they have to expect to wait another six to 12 months for a decision, and a further year to be fully considered for resettlement, and again more months until there will be a decision about their status. There are only two legal aid providers in Bangkok, so there is a lack of quality information and advice on the asylum and refugee process.
Simon never wanted to leave his home. He wanted to commit himself to the youngsters in his parish, be a good role model. He thought a man who is serious about his faith should not remain silent when other Christians have to suffer. Now he is a victim himself.
“I don't regret anything. For my faith I had to speak out against the injustice in my country,“ he said.
He knows he is facing years of uncertainty. “I left hell and have come to another,” he said. “But I believe in God and know that he will guard my way.”
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