Return from Thailand: Memoir of a Pakistani Christian

Thousands struggle to survive after being denied refuge in Thailand
Return from Thailand: Memoir of a Pakistani Christian

A Thai immigration police officer directs Pakistani refugees released on bail to a waiting bus after their detention at the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok in this file photo. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP) 

ucanews.com reporter, Lahore
Pakistan
August 7, 2017
Tariq Masih was a well-paid supervisor at Pakistan State Oil before he left for Thailand to seek asylum.

However, as the only Christian holding a senior position there, he encountered pressure from colleagues to convert to the country's majority religion, Islam. After declining to do so, Masih came under workplace pressure. "They changed my duty hours and I stopped getting overtime," he told ucanews.

On one occasion, there had been a threat to close the lid of an oil tank he was inspecting. "No one will ever know about you, your bones will dissolve in the oil," he was told.

Masih's professional life deteriorated over four years. Then a sympathetic Muslim colleague passed on a warning that a bounty had been placed on his head. The colleague told of the threat while dining at Masih's home in Peshawar, near the historic Khyber Pass border with Afghanistan.

That same night he left with his wife and four children, including a mentally challenged son, to stay with relatives 145 kilometers away in the city of Bannu.

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Troubles in Thailand

In early 2011, Masih arrived in the Thai capital Bangkok, hoping the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would help his family join him there. He recalls visiting Christian asylum seekers from Pakistan in Samrong district on the outskirts of Bangkok. "I could not become part of the ghetto," he said. "Instead of helping, many tried to take my money by fraud."

He said some asylum seekers behaved badly, getting into drunken fights which had to be broken up by Thai police officers. 

A meeting with UNHCR officials after three months ended when Masih tore up his application file, angered by what he regarded as a lack of progress. "I explained about the problems in Peshawar," Masih said. "They agreed to help relocate my family, but only after three years." He gave up his bid and became one of a growing number of Pakistanis steadily returning from Thailand to the country they sought to leave behind.

In addition to tens of thousands of refugees from bordering countries, the UNHCR states that in Thailand there are about 8,000 refugees from Pakistan, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, China, and elsewhere. To qualify for resettlement in a third country, such as the US or Canada, refugees wait up to five years.  During this time many are reliant on assistance from churches and relief organizations. Thailand's labor laws prohibit refugees from working in the country. And most refugee children are unable to access Thai schools due to restrictions on movement, language barriers and discriminatory treatment by school administrators.

In May, Thai immigration authorities and the UNHCR came under fire after a 34-year-old Christian asylum seeker died in Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center from a heart attack.

Thailand is not a signatory to UN convention that protects refugees' rights.  The Thai embassy in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, once provided visa fee waiver schemes for Pakistani tourists. However, stricter visa requirements were adopted due to an increased number of Pakistanis seeking refugee status.

As a result, more members of religious minorities are now opting to travel to the Philippines, Maldives, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

 

Homecoming

Meanwhile, Masih now serves as a pastor in Youhanabad, a Christian neighborhood of Lahore, in Punjab province on the Indian border. "All my savings are spent," he laments. "I sold vegetables for a few months and also worked as a helper in an institute for the blind. The church is now both my spiritual support and source of livelihood."

According to Tariq Saraj Chaudhry, a Christian advocate who assists the UNHCR office in Bangkok to review asylum seeker applications, life upon return to Pakistan can be miserable for returnees. Some had already sold their homes in Pakistan to pursue their dream of living abroad. Chaudhry called on the UN to help people under threat to gain refugee status in other countries. Human rights activists have repeatedly urged the government to stop forced conversion to Islam of girls from religious minorities. Activists have also campaigned against mob violence and controversial anti-blasphemy laws carrying the death penalty

Those who return to Pakistan cannot live openly due to fear. Often they do not get support from relatives and friends as they are concerned about possible retribution. "Two months ago, a Christian family man committed suicide due to financial struggles after returning from Bangkok," Chaudhry said.

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