Death, disease, starvation, and continuous living in hiding from immigration authorities to escape permanent imprisonment in stinking dungeons – this is what life has become for many stateless Pakistani Christians stranded in Thailand for years now.
Several heroic Thai locals have come forward to help sustain these starving asylum seekers, though the Pakistanis are still hoping for support from other Christians around the world, who they feel have abandoned them in their agony and despair.
In August 2009, seven Christians died when more than 100 Christian homes were set on fire in the Pakistani city of Gojra. After this incident, more than 10,000 Pakistani Christians from across the country started arriving in Bangkok to apply for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Since 2012, a crackdown on asylum seekers has intensified, which is why now the number of Pakistani Christians in Thailand has decreased to only around 400 families. The largest and hardest crackdown took place just two months ago, on 9 October, when about 100 Pakistani Christians were arrested and sent to Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs). It is estimated that there are currently about 380 Pakistani Christians in these IDCs.
The Pakistani Christians living in Thailand say that not even 5 per cent of the entire number of applications to the UNHCR were approved for refugee status, and given that Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 convention of the UNHCR, even those who were successful don’t have legal cover.
These Christians believe that the relationship between the UNHCR and the Thai government became worse after Pakistan’s former Human Rights Minister, Kamran Michael, visited Thailand and said that Christians were not suffering back at home.
Because of the crackdown, many of the Christians have moved from Bangkok to remote areas. Immigration authorities started raiding condos, factories and restaurants and have even begun stopping foreigners from countries like Myanmar, India and Pakistan at malls, to ask them to show their passports. Some asylum seekers have taken to draping black sheets over their windows and doors and putting locks on their entrances to give the impression that they are away. In this situation, the lifeline to these families is a WhatsApp connection through which they stay connected with others in the same situation.
The dreaded IDCs in Bangkok stink with a deadly stench, as cells have over 100 people put together. Amnesty International reported in 2014 that the detainees have “about 1.19 square metres per person. This amount of space does not allow adequate space for all of the detainees to lie down to sleep”. The overcrowded cells have children, women and the elderly, who are provided boiled rice and boiled cucumber twice a day and two small bottles of milk for babies, and sometimes napkins. And in the case of sickness, Pakistani Christians spoken to by World Watch Monitor said immigration authorities are reluctant to take them to hospital. At least five Christians have reportedly died in these centres in the last few years.
Recent media reports claimed the Christians face deportation, but World Watch Monitor understands this is not the case. Instead, Pakistani Christians stranded in Thailand say that there are only two ways to get out of these horrible dungeons: death, or purchasing a plane ticket and travel fee to the airport, after which immigration authorities will transport them in a police van straight to the plane.
Several Christians who had been bailed out after their arrest, having submitted an application with the UNHCR, are now being asked to appear in the court, where their bails are being cancelled, without explanation, and they are shifted to the IDCs.
Bittu and ‘Mamma’
One Christian man, requesting anonymity, told World Watch Monitor that when raids started in October, he hid himself in the factory where he worked and then slept at night.
“I had my wife make chapatti [flatbread] for eight days, which I ate dipping in water to soften it as Thai food is so expensive for us and very different,” he said.
This fellow’s 15-year-old son, who can only be identified by his alias, Bittu, was arrested by the Thai police in May. Before he was sent to the IDC, the police contacted his father on the phone.
“I was illegal, so I also could not go to the police station, but I requested a few other Christians intervene and bring Bittu back. The police initially asked the bribe of 50,000 Thai baht [about $1,500] to release him. I had already not paid house rent for three months because several factories and restaurants where we worked refused to give us jobs. So how could I pay such a hefty amount? But thankfully then a few local Thais intervened, using their connections, and brought Bittu back without having to pay a bribe.”
“Have we committed such a big sin that other Christians have abandoned us in this hellfire? Now the slightest noise is enough to scare us to death.”
Bittu’s mother, who works secretly as a babysitter, told World Watch Monitor that the fearful experience haunts him as a nightmare and several times he wakes up shouting: “Don’t take me to the jail. Don’t take me to the jail.”
The family lives in a condo owned by a landlady whom they lovingly call ‘Mamma’. Mamma hid about eight Christian families in an underground chamber for more than two weeks.
“Mamma is great and brave but she doesn’t allow us to leave the building after 6am for work because then the authorities may arrest us and also raid the building. So I leave at 4am, when dogs rule the roads, while work begins at 8am, and until then I keep hiding from immigration authorities and dogs,” Bittu’s mother, who is 38, told World Watch Monitor.
“Have we committed such a big sin that [other Christians around the world] have perpetually abandoned us in this hellfire?” Bittu’s mother asked. “Now the slightest noise is enough to scare us to death.”
Because of their plight, children are being stunted, both physically and mentally, as is the case with the noticeably thin Bittu. They also don’t have any educational facilities available as they are permanently locked in these one-room flats.
“Only once has there been a raid on our condo and the police hit the doors, shouting for us to come out, but we didn’t and behaved as if there was no-one home,” Bittu’s mother explained.
Local churches were initially active in providing help, but this has decreased over the years. The asylum seekers also say that many aid organisations made promises to them which they never fulfilled. Also, due to their fear of being arrested, these Christians do not attend Sunday services and therefore feel even more disconnected.
In Mamma’s condo also lives Samson Rehmat, 48, who has been unwell since early 2016. He came to Thailand in 2013, along with his wife and two children – a daughter, who is 12, and son, who is 14.
“The doctors suggested that Rehmat have a CT scan, but we never had money for this,” his wife, who did not wish to be named, told World Watch Monitor. “At last he had two strokes and I decided that I will take him to hospital even if I am arrested.
“The doctors suggested that Rehmat have a CT scan, but we never had money for this. At last he had two strokes and I decided that I will take him to hospital even if I am arrested.”
“All I had was 250 Thai baht [less than $10] in my pocket, while doctors asked me to deposit 35,000 baht [$1,000]. My colleagues at work gave me 15,000 baht [$450] and the hospital collected some 10,000 baht [$300] for treatment. I am still paying back that money to my colleagues.”
Rehmat’s wife now only has money to buy him medicated milk and sanitary napkins, but not medicine. Each day she travels during her lunch break to change Rehmat’s napkin because the children are still too young to take this responsibility. She said her employer is kind, which is why she is allowed to go back home.
“All the time when I am out, my family keeps hoping for my safe return and I keep hoping for their safety,” she said.
The husband of 47-year-old Victoria, who can only be identified by her first name, is suffering with chronic kidney disease, stage four, a condition her husband developed in Thailand, she told World Watch Monitor. Someone privately sponsored her immigration, along with her three sons and husband, to Canada and in August she flew there after living in Thailand for five years.
Many others are waiting for such angels, who can save them from their terrible plight. Fifty-four-year-old Maqsood Iqbal has been going to the IDC every day since his wife was arrested in 2014. The BBC Thai language service reported on his story. Iqbal told World Watch Monitor that he does not provide food to his wife alone but tries to take as much as food every day to the IDC so that he can also provide for others.
Sakda Kaewbuadee is a Thai film actor who regularly goes to IDCs to provide food and clothes to the detainees. His film, “10 Years Thailand”, was the first Thai film to make it to the red carpet of the Cannes festival in France this year. Thai immigration authorities have repeatedly warned the 39-year-old of legal action, but nothing is deterring him from serving these folks.
Kaewbuadee told World Watch Monitor that he was about 20 years old when he came to Bangkok from a nearby village after finishing school.
“When I needed help, there was no-one to help me. I cannot let them suffer alone.”
“I started work at KFC and I used to sleep on the road because I had no shelter,” he said. “One morning, I was still sleeping on the road when someone awoke me and asked if I wanted to work in films. I couldn’t believe it, but his accompanying secretary told me about his recent films and then I realised who was talking to me. Since then I am working as an artist.
“When I needed help, at first there was no-one to help me. So now I cannot let them suffer alone.”
Kaewbuadee has spent all the money he earned from the ‘10 Years Thailand’ film on these helpless prisoners. Born a Buddhist and believing in humanity and service, Kaewbuadee also mentioned that he was born on Christmas Day.
A rich Thai woman, whose name literally means “star” and who lives in the eastern part of the country, sent cupcakes and other eatables that she prepares herself for these detainees. The woman visited the IDCs herself and now she continuously provides food for them.
“You need compassion to do this work,” Kaewbuadee said. “I ask my friends, who help once or twice and then they stop, but this great woman has done so much over time.”
“You need compassion to do this work. I ask my friends, who help once or twice and then they stop, but this great woman has done so much over time.”
Despite so many challenges, still several Christians remain hopeful they will be able to migrate to industrialised countries, while others say they would even prefer to go back to Pakistan but don’t have the money to buy the tickets. The International Organisation for Migration provides travel tickets, but their process is considered tedious and long.
Most of the Christians who came to Thailand brought enough money to keep them for a year or two, but now they have no money left and find it quite embarrassing to go back home, while for others it may even be dangerous to return.
But still a small number of Christians have returned to Pakistan, with the help of their relatives. Francis Sodagar is one such person. He went to Thailand in 2012, along with his three daughters and wife, and returned last month.
A Christian member of the Pakistan National Assembly, Shunila Ruth, belonging to the ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, wrote to the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, last month, asking for his help in bringing home the Christians who wish to return but don’t have the money.
In her letter, a copy of which World Watch Monitor has seen, she wrote: “I wish to draw [your] attention towards thousands of impoverished Pakistanis, stranded in Thailand … [the] majority of whom are Pakistani Christians, as well as Ahmadis. These people had to flee to Thailand to escape growing discrimination and persecution during the last eight years … I humbly appeal to the Prime Minister’s Office to [give] possible assistance to these stranded Pakistanis on humanitarian grounds.”
Shunila Ruth told World Watch Monitor: “Federal Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari has told me that the prime minister has assigned her the task to look into this.”