BANGKOK – Thailand is a prime tourist destination, a favorite for pleasure seekers around the world. But that’s not why nearly 10,000 Pakistanis have ended up in Bangkok, most of them living an underground existence.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous nations for religious minorities. Thailand is one of the few countries that allow Pakistanis easy entry as tourists. With the United Nations certifying refugees from the lengthy conflict in neighboring Myanmar, persecuted Pakistanis started arriving four years ago seeking resettlement in the West.
Alas, the U.N. offered false hope. The typical refugee waits years just for an interview, the first step to receiving official refugee status. So far, not one has moved on to America or anywhere else.
In the meantime humanitarian groups such as Christian Freedom International (CFI) are helping the refugees survive. CFI President Jim Jacobson argues that the only feasible solution is for the United States to admit people who are not only in desperate need, but “who share Americans’ values and are America’s friends in the fight against terrorism.”
Although Pakistan is nominally a U.S. ally, in practice no government other than Saudi Arabia has done more to promote Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Such malicious behavior is merely an outward expression of inner failure.
Pakistan is a very illiberal society. A weak civilian administration faces a dominant military. Islamic radicals battle government forces and assassinate liberal Muslims. Sectarian murderers are publicly supported and applauded.
Religious minorities face persecution and death. Christians are disproportionately targeted by draconian blasphemy laws, often as retaliation for commercial and personal disputes.
Churches are destroyed; mobs threaten Christians who refuse to convert. At Easter, the Pakistan Taliban bombed a children’s park frequented by Christians, killing more than 70 people of all faiths.
In its most recent report on religious liberty, the U.S. Commission in International Religious Freedom concluded: “the Pakistani government continued to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations.” The commission pointed to discriminatory legislation, violence by nonstate actors, forced conversions, government failure to protect likely victims and a “deep-rooted climate of impunity.”
This is the environment from which Christians currently stuck in Bangkok fled. Sectarian threats and attacks drove them from their homes. In one case a man married a Christian convert from Islam. Her family threatened to kill him — not idle talk in Pakistan — causing the two to seek asylum in Thailand.
In another case, a minister was approached by Islamic radicals and told to stop preaching or they would murder him and his family. The Christians escaped to Bangkok.
Pakistani asylum seekers endure a tenuous existence. On arrival the U.N. typically gives them an appointment set a year or two in the future; the date often is delayed as the appointment approaches.
Once their visa expires, the asylum hopefuls are unable to work legally and subject to arrest whenever they leave home. The Thai authorities stake out neighborhoods and raid apartments where refugees are believed to live.
Some officials appear as interested in collecting bribes as enforcing the law. Hundreds of unlucky asylum seekers have ended up in detention.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is supposed to make a designation within 90 days, but some Pakistani Christians end up waiting several years. Being formally recognized by the U.N. brings some financial assistance, but not legal status. Thailand never ratified the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, so even U.N.-designees are still considered to be in the country illegally.
CFI does its best to help refugees, providing food and sundries. But the group can only assist a limited number of families. Although the refugee flow ebbed after word returned to Pakistan that there was no easy exit from Thailand, those already arrived are essentially trapped. They have sold their possessions and only persecution and violence would await them back in Pakistan. But they see no path forward either.
Jacobson acknowledges that fear of refugees permeates Western politics. However, he notes that people persecuted for their faith are among the best candidates to receive asylum. Jacobson points out that it would be hard to find a more pro-Western group of Christians fleeing persecution.
All major political parties have reason to support such an effort. Taking in oppressed Christian refugees should appeal across the partisan spectrum.
The U.S. has learned at great cost that it can’t remake foreign societies. However, it and its friends could help save these few desperate people seeking to escape the same destructive sectarian forces that have targeted so many other people.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. www.christianfreedom.org