Until a week or so ago Saleem Iqbal had relative freedom of movement and a reasonably good life by the standards of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers living in Bangkok. He no longer does. The Pakistani Catholic has been free on bail after spending nine months in 2015 inside the city's notorious Immigration Detention Center (IDC)
, where detainees often spend months or years in overcrowded, squalid cells until they are bailed out or deported. But now that Thai authorities have stepped up their campaign against illegal migrants and visa over-stayers in the country, Iqbal, too, has been caught up in the dragnet. In their ongoing operation called "X-Ray Outlaw Foreigners," immigration authorities have arrested more than 2,200 foreign nationals nationwide, including hundreds of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers. Last week 70 newly detained Pakistani Christians and Ahmadi Muslims were convicted by a Bangkok court of overstaying their visas or entering the country illegally. They are now facing the prospect of being deported back to Pakistan, where they fear their lives might be in danger at the hands of Muslim extremists who have been targeting local Christians.
In another sign of their hardening official attitudes towards asylum seekers, Thai authorities have canceled bail for all former detainees. That means that tomorrow morning Iqbal and one of his brothers, who has also been out on bail, will have to report back at the detention center. They may be facing another prolonged spell behind bars. "I don't know how long they will keep us there," Iqbal (not his real name) says. Rights activists have condemned some aspects of the recent government crackdown on asylum seekers
. "It's regrettable the [authorities are] now pursuing such a hard-line approach," a rights activist working for a Catholic charity in Bangkok told ucanews.com. "Some of these people are single parents or minors who should be protected regardless of their legal status," the rights activist noted, adding that by arresting refugees indiscriminately, local authorities risked damaging the country's image. "Developing a more [humane and] systematic approach to monitor those on bail would represent a practical and reasonable solution," he said. Iqbal fled his homeland with his two brothers in 2014 after threats on their lives by local Muslims over spurious accusations of blasphemy. All three brothers have been recognized as certified refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok — in a rare privilege denied to most of the 2,500 Pakistani Christian asylum seekers languishing in the Thai capital. Thanks to that status, Iqbal could go about town freely and even work part-time, earning some extra income that allowed him to support himself. He has even been working out, turning a once out-of-shape body into a well-toned physique. Few of the other Christian asylum seekers have enjoyed such relative luxuries. Most of them have been subsisting on handouts from Catholic charities and spending most of their time hiding out in low-cost rented apartments, forever fearing a knock on the door from the authorities. The renewed crackdown on asylum seekers has rattled already jittery nerves among Pakistani Christians
, most of whom arrived on tourist visas, since long expired, in 2014 and 2015. "People are being persecuted back home and now we are being persecuted here too," Iqbal says. "It's time [people in] the world woke up about what's happening." Their pleas for help to the UNHCR's local office have fallen on deaf ears, members of the community say. "Our only hope is now that the Vatican will get involved," Iqbal says. "In the past Pope Francis asked people [in Europe] to welcome and protect Syrian refugees," he adds. "Perhaps he can do the same for us too." This article was first published 16. 10. 2018.
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