It was a short trip to a convenience store that saved Sarah Malik. One fateful morning the young Pakistani Catholic woman left her small rented apartment in Bangkok to stock up on groceries at a nearby 7-Eleven outlet. Husband Amir stayed behind to look after the couple's newborn son. Within minutes Sarah (whose name and whose husband's name have been changed to protect their identities) received a frantic call from Amir. Immigration authorities had come knocking on their door during a search for visa overstayers and illegal migrants at low-rent condominiums. By then the Christian couple, who fled to Bangkok from their hometown of Karachi in fear of their lives several years ago, had long been overstaying their tourist visas. "My husband told me not to come back to the apartment," Sarah recalls. "He warned me to stay away."
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Amir left their son, who was only a few months old at the time, with neighbors before he was taken by Thai immigration authorities to Bangkok's notorious Immigration Detention Center (IDC). That was two and a half years ago and Sarah has since seen her husband only once — during a brief time he was allowed to spend outside the detention facility for a medical check. "I left him only for five minutes," Sarah laments in fluent English. "I haven't seen him for a long time." Sarah can't visit Amir at the detention center for fear of being detained there herself because she does not have a valid visa and so is staying illegally in Thailand. The couple have been seeking asylum in the country, but Thailand is reluctant to offer any legal protection to asylum seekers. The couple's request for refugee status has also been denied by the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
, which routinely turns down requests by Pakistani Christian asylum seekers to be classified as refugees. "He calls me now and again, whenever he can, to tell me he's alright. He tells me I shouldn't worry," Sarah says. "But how can I not worry?" For the past two and a half years Amir has been languishing in an overcrowded, squalid cell with 200 or so other men, all of whom come from the Indian subcontinent. For want of space in their jam-packed quarters, the detainees take turns lying down on the floor to sleep at night and they need to queue for their turn at one of two squat toilets. They subsist on the bowls of thin gruel they are given three times a day and on food packages sent by friends and relatives from outside. Skin diseases are rampant among the inmates and various infectious maladies are also common. Two detainees — a 72-year-old Vietnamese man and a 55-year-old Cambodian man — were recently found dead the same night in a room at the detention center. In recent years several people kept in Thai immigration detention centers, often indefinitely, have died. In May last year, Ijaz Masih, a 36-year-old Christian Pakistani asylum seeker, died after suffering a heart attack at Bangkok's IDC, where he had been detained for over a year. "Thai authorities are putting people who seek refugee protection at grave risk by keeping them in awful conditions in immigration detention centers," Brad Adams, Asia director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The Thai government should recognize that its punitive detention policy
towards asylum seekers is both inhumane and counterproductive. Punishing people who are fleeing ghastly conditions at home will not keep them away but just add to their misery." Yet if life is hard for detainees, often it is hardly much better for their relatives on the outside. "We are scared all the time," Sarah says. "You never know who's going to knock on the door. I'm afraid my son and I could be detained too." Like thousands of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers across Bangkok, Sarah spends almost all her time cooped up in a small apartment with her son, hankering behind closed doors. "We are not safe even at home," Sarah says. "We are cowering in fear. This is not good for our mental health." Unable to work legally and afraid to work illegally, Sarah and her young son survive on donations provided by local Catholic charities. "We live on handouts and food packages," she says. "We are like beggars, constantly holding out our hands [for donations]. It's humiliating. We didn't choose this life." Back home in Karachi, Amir and Sarah were well off by Pakistani standards and lived what seemed like a charmed life. The young couple had a nice house and good jobs. "We had a good life," she recalls. "But then our world collapsed." Some local Muslims began accusing Sarah of trying to convert their 6-year-old daughter to Christianity. She was doing no such thing, she insists, but they would not listen. In Pakistan, insulting Islam, the Prophet Muhammad or Muslims carries severe penalties. In recent years numerous Christians and other members of religious minorities have been sentenced to prison or death on trumped-up charges of blasphemy
. Many of the accused never make it to court and are instead lynched by angry mobs. "They [the couple's accusers] forced their way into our house," Sarah remembers. "They beat us. They pulled a gun and started threatening us. They told us to convert to Islam or they would kill us." Like many other Christians fearing their lives were in danger in Pakistan, the couple fled to Thailand, a country to which they could obtain tourist visas with relative ease. Once in Thailand, however, they found themselves in a perennial state of limbo and a shadowland of illegality. After overstaying their visas, they have become subject to prompt arrest by Thai authorities, who have recently embarked on another large-scale crackdown on people staying illegally in the country. They have threatened to report all visa overstayers back to their countries of origin. The plight of asylum seekers such as single mothers with young children is especially egregious, stresses a Bangkok-based foreign refugee advocate who asked to remain anonymous. "People who are single parents should be protected regardless of their legal status," the advocate argues. "At the very least the government should afford them protection in a demonstration that Thailand does mean to put its so-called national agenda regarding 'Human Rights as a Driving Force' into practice." Yet the prospects of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers like Sarah and Amir are likely to remain bleak in Thailand. Their only real hope is to be resettled to a third country that accepts them as refugees. Being deported back to Pakistan, Christian asylum seekers insist, could mean grave dangers to their lives or wellbeing. "I'm afraid my husband will be deported and I won't even know when it happens," Sarah says. "Despite our troubles, at least we are safe here. In Pakistan we can be killed." Yet the couple's relative safety in Thailand, which markets itself as "The Land of Smiles," has come with considerable costs, not least to their young son. The boy has been spending the first few formative years of his life without a father. "It's been hard on my son. He asks about his father a lot. He asks every day," Sarah says. "I tell him his father is away working. I can't tell him the truth. I don't want to upset him." The boy is one of many Pakistani Christian children with parents or relatives languishing in detention at the IDC. Recently, a 12-year-old boy, whose father has been held in the detention center for a year and a half, sent an email message to a locally based Catholic priest, pleading for help from the cleric. Here it is exactly as he wrote it: "Father, as you know, the situation [in] Thailand is not good and many people are catched. The immigration police give one paper to my dad and said that he sign on it and my dad did [but] we don't know what the paper which has Thai language is. There [has been] news that it could be deportation documents," he wrote in English. "Father, please tell Pope Francis about this situation," the boy pleaded. "There are women and small children and people like my dad in IDC. My small brother misses his dad a lot. Please, Father, pray for us and for my dad. Thank you and God bless you."