A Pakistani Christian asylum seeker holds a copy of the Bible at a Catholic organization in Bangkok. (UCA News photo)
Zara Samuels is finding it harder and harder to cope. “I need a psychiatrist,” says the Catholic asylum seeker from Lahore in Pakistan. “I feel like I can’t take it anymore. I have a constant fear of being arrested. I can’t think of anything else.”
For the past year, the young woman has been raising Emily, her five-year-old daughter, alone in tiny rented rooms in Bangkok.
Her barebones apartment’s monthly rent is 3,000 baht (US$100), which is all she can afford to spend in an entire month as she has no job. She and her daughter moved there last month after a building near where they had been staying in another neighborhood was raided by immigration police one morning.
Scores of Pakistani Christians were rounded up in the raid. They were taken to a squalid, overcrowded immigration detention center where many of them remain locked up for having overstayed their visas.
Concerned that a similar fate might befall her and her daughter, Zara Samuels (not her real name) thought it safer to change locations. Yet even at her new hiding place she remains constantly on edge. “We’re not safe here either,” she observes matter-of-factly. “We’re not safe anywhere.”
Like hundreds of other Pakistani Christians who have fled their Muslim-majority homeland in fear of their lives in the face of religious discrimination and violence, Zara has found herself stuck in limbo for years.
Thai authorities refuse to grant refugee status to Christian asylum seekers from Pakistan, considering them to be illegal migrants. As a result, these refugees are subject to arrest and possible deportation.
“We’ve been living like this for years,” Zara says. “We’re living in constant fear.”
All Zara can do is wait and pray for a third country to grant her family asylum, which might take several more years. In the meantime, she spends all her time cooped up inside the small unit in eastern Bangkok with Emily, dreading a knock on the door from the authorities that could come any time.
“We can’t go outside. Sometimes we don’t even have food. My daughter wants to go and play outside, but it’s not possible,” she says while Emily occupies herself by playing with her toys by her side.
“I’ve trained my daughter what to do if the police come. We’ll need to draw the curtains, turn off the lights and stay deadly quiet. It’s very difficult for us right now, but she understands.”
Forced into marriage
Zara’s husband, Khalid, left Thailand a year ago after he managed to obtain a one-week business visa to Italy through some of his friends in a cricket team where he had been playing in Bangkok. An up-and-coming batsman, Khalid fled Lahore after he tried to rescue his sister who had been kidnapped and forced into marrying a scion of a powerful Muslim clan.
Fearing for his life, Khalid flew to Bangkok with Zara on a tourist visa six years ago. Their daughter was born in the Thai capital.
In January last year, Khalid decided to strike out on his own by traveling to Europe with the aim of resettling there. “The idea was that I would come to Europe alone, apply for refugee status and then bring my family here,” he says by phone.
It hasn’t turned out that way. From Italy, the Christian asylum seeker made his way to the Netherlands in the hope that in the famously liberal European country he would be welcomed as a refugee.
However, because he had not followed the official procedure for refugee applications to the Netherlands, he has been turned down. He can reapply again later this year, Khalid says, but until then all he can do is wait.
After spending three months in a refugee camp, Khalid is now in hiding in the Netherlands the same way he was in hiding in Bangkok. He has been provided with a temporary home by a welcoming Christian family in the town of Nunspeet and is subsisting on food packages distributed by a local church to the needy.
“I am staying here illegally, so I can’t work,” Khalid says. “I am in a terrible situation. I can’t go back to Bangkok to see my family and I can’t go back to Pakistan because my life would be in danger there.”
The family’s separation has been taking its emotional toll. “It’s killing me,” Khalid says. “I worry about my wife and daughter all the time.”
The enforced separation has been equally hard on Zara and her daughter. “We’re feeling hopeless and I don’t know what to do,” the young woman says. “Our only hope is God.”