BANGKOK - It has been a year since 14-year-old Samantha moved with her parents, elder sister and elder brother to Bangkok. She still does not clearly understand why they left their home in Lahore and moved to Thailand. All she knows is that her father was in trouble back in their hometown and some bad people wanted to kill him to avenge what they said was his unruly behaviour and remarks that he supposedly made at his workplace that resulted in a fight. In Bangkok she spends her time playing games on computer and playing with a large number of young children also from Pakistan and some Thai children that also live in the same compound. She has picked up a number of Thai words and proudly claims to be an expert in conversation with local Thai people.
Talking to this scribe the other day Samantha said she was very happy but missed her school. “Uncle nothing has changed as we eat the same Pakistani food and go to church every Sunday. I am leader among the youngsters here and they all call me deedi (elder sister),” she proudly said.
The scribe has been living with Pakistani families seeking asylum and refugee status in Thailand for more than two weeks. During the period I also met a number of Syrian, Palestinian, Somalian, Indonesian, Burmese, Sri Lankan and Iranian refugees. They all tell harrowing tales of torture and their social and religious non-acceptance in their home countries. Ahmedis have for decades been coming over to seek asylum. In the last two years the number of Christians and some other communities from Pakistan has swelled due to persecution of minorities in some instances, framing of charges against them for acting against some religious laws including blasphemy and in some cases because of their forced conversion. Reportedly it is not just Thailand that is destination of these people. There are a number of Christians in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Christmas Island, Greece, Kenya and the island nation of Malta. This report, however, is just based on findings in Thailand where these people are referred to as urban refugees and are mostly living in the suburbs of Bangkok.
Pakistani Christians in the last two years have moved in large numbers to Thailand. The problems they face at the hands of extremists are just beginning of their ordeal. Their first test comes at Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad airports. They are asked hefty amounts to board the plane by immigration officials. On average one family of four people pay $800 to $1,000 for embarking on the plane. Mrs Sarfaraz Jacob who moved from Lahore in January with her daughter, son and daughter-in-law was offloaded for not paying the bribe. The next day she again tried and was able to negotiate their exit for $800. The officials do not take bribe in rupees and demand payment only in dollars. “I pleaded with them that the money I had was my pension and gratuity of public sector service as a teacher. They paid no heed to my requests and said I was going to seek asylum abroad,” she said. Interestingly all the travel documents and visas of these people are genuine and the authorities have no right to stop them.
When they arrive in Bangkok the real test begins. After filing for asylum they have to wait for nearly three to four months for call from UNHCR. They are given asylum seeking certificates. But during this period they are at risk of getting caught by local police as their visas expire after two months. They have to pay hefty amounts as bribe to cops to escape detention. After getting asylum seeking certificates then begins the wait for second call for interview which usually comes after one year, 18 months or after two years. During this period if they fall sick they can be treated at some designated hospitals after getting clearance from Bangkok Refugee Centre (from where they also get medicines for common diseases and illnesses). BRC medical unit is likely to close soon as there is plan afoot to get medical insurance for all asylum seekers and refugee status seekers. The people will have to pay 2,200 bhat yearly to get medical treatment through insurance.
During the period of their application if some person falls sick and dies it becomes very difficult to bury the dead. A child of one Javed died soon after birth. It cost 1,800 bhat to get him buried. No welfare organisation helped in the burial. Sharoon Gill was a civil engineer in Pakistan. His mother passed away last December after renal failure due to depression and loneliness. His mother’s body was cremated and sent to Pakistan for burial. “My daughter and son were school going in Pakistan. Their only complaint was of not wearing uniform and attending school. They would look at Thai children in envy and used to ask me when they would go to school. Thank God now they attend school as I and my wife teach at this refugee school,” he revealed. There is donor fatigue and the local churches have also stopped supporting the asylum seekers and refugees.
Life is not easy for those who leave Pakistan and dream of finding peace again. Bangkok is an expensive city and they have to look after themselves for nearly three years before their refugee process is complete and they may be given the option to settle in third country by the UNHCR. They have to pay for food and lodgings. The last ordeal comes when they are ready to leave Thailand. According to local law the family must live in Immigration Detention Centre for seven days before leaving. They can escape detention by paying fine of 20,000 bhat each.
The region is a little special because very few countries in South East Asia have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. There are few countries that have their own legal framework or process for asylum seekers. Because of this, UNHCR steps in to determine refugee status medical insurance for these people. For urban refugees, UNHCR is allowed to process their asylum claims, which it does from its Bangkok office. A senior Regional Public Officer of UNHCR Vivian Tan explained the situation. Following are the excerpts of her briefing:
“For the urban refugees we have started the mobile registration. We are trying to clear this backlog that people are waiting to be registered and get this asylum seeking certificate. The problem before was that the office had very limited space and there were also security constraints considering that it was UN office. That limited our ability to process people properly.
“What we have started for a limited time is to set up a registration facility next door in a school. The idea is to boost up the capacity, hire more staff temporarily and call up everybody who filed an application but was not registered. We call them up with all their documents, register them and issue them UN asylum seeking certificate. We are trying to catch up with the dialogue so that they do not have to face harassment.
“In Thailand there are about 120,000 refugees in nine camps. Then there are about 1,000 Rohingyas. For the urban refugees we have to differentiate between asylum seekers and refugees. All asylum seekers seek refugee status but not all get that. We do individual refugee determination, which is also why it takes so long even after they get registered. It is a very intensive process. You get called in for first interview. Then it is very in-depth process, where we find out as to why did the person leave his home country.
“We have to double check to make sure that the story is correct because sometimes we hear stories that are exactly the same but from different families. It is like that somebody is feeding them these stories. We need to be conscious in the whole screening to ensure that migrants do not come in the guise of refugees,” she maintained.
Language is a big problem for the people seeking asylum and refugee status in Thailand. Most of these people have come with their families. UNHCR is starting intensive Thai classes for about six months to get them comfortable with Thai language so that the children can enter local schools. The scribe has seen a number of Pakistani origin children speaking Thai very fluently. It is difficult for adults to learn Thai language but children easily catch up with Thai words and in a very short time are able to communicate with the local population in Thai language. “Thai law says that every child should have access to education so the opportunity of their attending Thai schools materialises,” Vivian explained.
Considering the situation it is high time for the Pakistan government to take up this issue and end the woes of minorities and ethnic groups who are persecuted by extremists in the name of religion or for their own vested interests. The solution to Pakistani refugees’ problems needs to be explored by the Pakistan government to end their medical insurance exploitation.