Thai authorities in Bangkok have arrested 51 Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in an incident that has reignited fears among the city’s Christian refugees of another immigration crackdown on illegal immigrants.
According to eyewitnesses, immigration authorities arriving in two police vans pulled up outside a low-rent apartment building in Bearing Soi 7 in eastern Bangkok where several Pakistani Christian families had been hiding out after having overstayed their tourist visas to Thailand.
Likely acting on a tipoff from a disgruntled local, immigration police knocked on selected doors around 7 a.m. on July 8. When the fearful residents failed to respond, officers battered the doors down with hammers.
They then proceeded to round up entire families and take them to Bangkok’s notorious Immigration Detention Center where inmates languish, often indefinitely, in squalid and overcrowded cells.
“They took everyone — men, women, old people, young children,” a Pakistani Christian asylum seeker who was privy to the incident via a phone connection told ucanews.com. “They even took sick old people who can’t walk anymore.”
When several Christian asylum seekers seemed reluctant to leave the apartments, immigration officers allegedly manhandled them, including mothers in front of their crying children.
“The officers roughed up some people, even women,” a Pakistani Christian told ucanews.com. “They took some of my friends. I’m very concerned about them.”
As evidence of the incident, Pakistani Christians showed off images, taken by mobile phones, of plywood doors bashed in and numerous Pakistani refugees, including a distraught elderly woman, being taken away in police vans.
The incident has raised fears among Pakistani Christians in Bangkok that local authorities might be launching another crackdown on people staying illegally in the country, including asylum seekers with no proper refugee status.
Hundreds of Pakistani Christians who have fled their homeland in fear of their lives remain in legal limbo in Bangkok.
They arrived in the country on tourist visas that have long since expired. Thai authorities, who refuse to accept them as genuine refugees, consider them to be illegal immigrants.
As a result, Pakistani Christians, along with other persecuted minorities from other countries, are routinely arrested and detained at overcrowded immigration detention centers in prison-like conditions.
To avoid that fate, Pakistani Christian asylum seekers spend their time hiding from the authorities in small low-rent apartments. They say they cannot or will not return to Pakistan because they would be certain to be persecuted, and possibly killed, owing to their religious beliefs.
Christians, who account for less than 2 percent of the predominantly Muslim country’s population, are widely considered to be among the most persecuted minorities in the region.
Christians in Pakistan, where a conservative form of Islam dominates, face various forms of discrimination. Numerous Christians and other religious minorities have been jailed and murdered over accusations of blaspheming against Islam.
“We can’t go back but we can’t stay here either,” a Pakistani Christian asylum seeker said. “Thailand does not want us.”
These asylum seekers say their only hope lies in being accepted as refugees by a third country. The process of doing so, however, can take several years.
In the meantime, they do their best to stay out of sight by hiding in small apartments. They venture outside, briefly and periodically, only after sunset to do their shopping at local convenience stores.
Unable to work legally, most Pakistani Christians make ends meet on handouts provided by Christian charities.
The 51 seized Pakistani Christians will likely be detained in spartan surroundings with little hygiene or medical care, possibly for months or even years. As their mobile phones have been taken, they cannot be contacted from the outside.
Their plight has set nerves on edge among other asylum seekers who continue hiding around the Thai capital.
“My wife is especially worried. She is very worried,” said a young Pakistani Catholic man from Lahore whose wife is pregnant with the couple’s second child. “We are desperate to get out of Thailand, but all we can do is wait [until we are accepted by a third country].”
Other Pakistani Christians must now look for new places to hide, if only temporarily. It’s against the law in Thailand to rent apartments to illegal immigrants and some landlords send asylum seekers packing on the first sight of trouble.
“Our landlord has ordered us to leave the building as soon as possible because the coming days are going to be very dangerous for us,” said a Pakistani Christian man, referring to his own family as well as two other families.
“We have tried hard but we couldn’t find any other safe place. We are very depressed.”