Thailand’s government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok have been accused of “negligence” after a Pakistani Christian asylum seeker died in a detention centre last month.
Ijaz Masih, 35, was reportedly refused medical treatment on 26 May, after complaining of chest pains, and died of a heart attack a few hours later. He had previously suffered a stroke, which friends attributed to the stress of life inside an overcrowded detention centre and a lack of hope for the future.
Masih had travelled to Thailand in 2013 with his wife and three children to seek asylum, claiming he had been persecuted for his Christian faith in Pakistan and that his life had been threatened.
Nazir Bhatti, president of the Pakistan Christian Congress, said Masih being denied medical treatment was a “violation of human rights for which the UNHCR Bangkok office and the Thai government are equally responsible”, as reported by UCAN.
Bhatti pledged to take Masih’s case to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, saying the Bangkok office had violated UN refugee conventions and “hired Muslim translators who wrongly interpret Pakistani Christian asylum seekers during interviews, which end in their failure to present true stories and evidence”.
International Christian Voice, founded by Peter Bhatti (brother of murdered Christian politician Shahbaz), said it “strongly condemns the apathetic behaviour of Thai officials and the UNHCR” and that “the complete disregard for the health and wellbeing of detained asylum seekers is unacceptable”.
The charity called on the international community to “come forward and help Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere”, adding: “We cannot allow our brothers and sisters to continue suffering and dying due to negligence”.
Thousands of Pakistani Christians have sought asylum in Thailand in recent years, as it is relatively easy to fly there, though many have complained that the UNHCR treats their applications unsympathetically and thereby delays their resettlement.
A report to the UK parliament in February 2016 found that about 11,500 Pakistanis were seeking asylum in Thailand, a 51 per cent increase from the previous year; with the majority being Christian.
Based on the report, a group of British MPs urged their government to adopt a harsher official assessment of Pakistan’s treatment of Christians, saying United Nations officials in Thailand are not sufficiently concerned that Christians “face a real risk of persecution” if returned to their home country.
As a result, the MPs said, the already overwhelmed UN bureaucracy was prolonging the asylum process and too casually deporting Christians – using Britain’s less-than-urgent assessment of Pakistan as partial justification.
Meanwhile, Christians languish for years in jobless isolation, dependent on charity and trying to avoid arrest on charges of illegal immigration. And in Thailand, every asylum seeker, once their brief tourist visa expires, is guilty of illegal immigration: the country has never signed international agreements concerning refugees.
In February 2016 the BBC released a documentary that vividly reported on the Christians’ plight, including secretly obtained video footage of the dank, overcrowded Thai detention centres that hold men, women and children judged to be illegally in the country.
It is understood that, partly as a result of the global attention resulting from the BBC documentary and the MPs’ demands, the UK government updated its guidance on treatment of asylum-seeking Pakistani Christians in May 2016.
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 protocol and does not have a formal national asylum framework.
Also as a result of the documentary, the UNHCR in Thailand also began issuing verification cards to asylum seekers, a temporary arrangement at first informally recognized by the Thai government. However, despite possessing this UNHCR asylum seeker card, Masih was still detained in June 2016.
Why do Christians leave Pakistan?
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is 95 per cent Muslim, and 2.3 per cent Christian. According to Open Doors, a charity that provides support to Christians in places where they are under pressure, extremist Islamic parties don’t enjoy wide voter support, but anti-Christian forces are active at the grass roots. It says more than 40 jihadi groups and radical Islamic parties align under the umbrella of the Pakistan Defence Council.
Violence against Christians frequently is triggered by accusations, almost always bogus, that someone has desecrated a Quran or has insulted Muhammad. Blasphemy against Islam carries a minimum sentence of life in prison, with the death penalty an option. Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are widely popular among politically significant blocs of voters, even as they are criticised in world capitals as tools of Muslim intimidation.
Add to that the fact that most Pakistani Christians work at the menial end of the economy. The result: in 2011, only four countries produced more refugees seeking asylum in industrialised countries than Pakistan.