Nearly four years after refugees from Pakistan began showing up at evangelical churches in Thailand, church members were overwhelmed. What started as a handful of families asking for money at Bangkok services had become hundreds.
It is easy and inexpensive (compared with neighboring countries) for Pakistanis to obtain 30-day tourist visas to Thailand. Further, the majority Buddhist nation has lost more than 6,000 people to Islamist extremism since 2004. This leads Pakistani Christians fleeing persecution to believe the country will be sympathetic to their plight, says Jeffrey Imm, an advocate for such refugees. [Jubilee Campaign offers an in-depth report.]
Even so, after the tourist visa expires, Thailand considers all refugees to be illegal immigrants. Most left Pakistan not knowing that Thailand has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a treaty that protects refugees’ rights. Without legal status, many families fear that they will be arrested and forced to endure harsh conditions in immigration detention centers until they’re bailed out, can pay for a return flight, or are resettled.
Their plight has become increasingly public. In February, the BBC released a one-hour documentary highlighting Thailand’s treatment of Pakistani refugees. Since its release, the situation has only worsened for migrants, states the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA). It claims that Thai officials blocked two dozen humanitarians seeking to visit and provide food for refugees in detention centers earlier this month, and that family members are now forbidden to visit. [World Watch Monitor offers a thorough report.]
“It’s a very dire situation,” said Imm, founder of REAL (Responsible for Equality and Liberty). “They can’t work. They have to run and hide every day. They can’t earn a living. They can’t put food on the table or a roof over their heads. They can’t get medicine. Everything in life essentially needs to be given to them.”
It’s worst for Pakistani Christians, already stigmatized in their majority-Muslim home country. They face blasphemy laws that regularly scapegoat Christians, and suicide bombers have killed about 100 people in church attacks since 2013. In Thailand, they remain a minority at risk; today, Thai monks are campaigning to make Buddhism the official state religion, influenced in part by the success of Buddhist extremists in neighboring Myanmar.
But such news takes time to travel back to Pakistan, and refugees now in Thailand are reluctant to tell those back home of their dire situation.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s refugee response has become a victim of its own success.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today