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 in some of the city's poorer neighborhoods.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous nations for religious minorities. Thailand also is one of the few countries which allow Pakistanis easy entry as tourists. With the United Nations certifying refugees from the lengthy conflict in neighboring Burma, persecuted Pakistanis started arriving four years ago seeking resettlement in the West.
Alas, the UN 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 are helping the refugees survive in the shadows. CFI President Jim Jacobson argues that the only feasible solution is for the U.S. 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 are at greatest risk, facing persecution and death. Christians are disproportionately targeted by the draconian blasphemy laws, often as retaliation in commercial and personal disputes. The application of these laws is "deeply troubling," noted the State Department in a recent special report. 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 non-state actors, forced conversions, government failure to protect likely victims, and a "deep-rooted climate of impunity."
The State Department's most recent report on religious liberty made many of the same criticisms. Islamabad continues to enforce blasphemy laws, discriminate against religious minorities, and include derogatory attacks on non-Muslim faiths in school textbooks, as well as fail to safeguard "minority rights." State also pointed to forced conversions and marriages as well as "violence and abuses committed by armed sectarian groups" which targeted individuals as well as houses of worship.
Last year the group International Christian Concern produced a special feature on Pakistani Christians. Writer William Stark visited multiple locations of persecution and violence against believers. Examples included suicide bombings against churches, Christians burned alive after being accused of blasphemy, police torture of Christians accused of crimes against Muslims, mob attacks on homes and businesses, and assaults on believers after the release of an anti-Muslim movie.
Stark talked to many of the victims, including survivors of bombing attacks. He reported finding "Extreme fear, intense anger and devastating grief." He spoke to women who had been kidnapped, raped, and forced into marriage with Muslim men. This was, he explained, "one of the most frustrating and heartbreaking issues" he discovered in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the authorities do little; at this rate "hundreds more Christian girls and women will be victimized," he warned. He also talked to those who lost family members to sectarian attacks; "Little has been done to prevent these deadly incidents of mob violence sparked by blasphemy accusations."
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. A janitor was told to convert to Islam by a police officer. When the Christian refused, the cop threatened the latter and his family. They fled.
Pakistani asylum seekers endure a tenuous existence. While 30-day tourist visas are freely granted, some entering Pakistanis are dunned for bribes by border guards. On arrival they approach the UN, only to receive 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. They cannot purchase property and even marriage does not make them citizens.
Some of the refugees mistakenly assumed that the majority-Buddhist nation, which is suffering from a deadly Muslim insurgency, would welcome them. In fact, nationalism is on the rise under military rule and there has been pressure to make Buddhism the national religion. The junta has no sympathy for either foreigners or Christians.
In fact, 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. Even those who avoid arrest, or are released, for bail or bribe, from crowded facilities, live a sharply circumscribed existence. Multiple families share small apartments; work is limited; children receive only informal education. Everyone fears going out to shop or even to seek medical care.
The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees is supposed to make a designation within 90 days, but some Pakistani Christians end up waiting several years. Being formally recognized by the UN brings some financial assistance, but not legal status. Thailand never ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, so even UN-designees are still considered to be in the country illegally. Earlier this year the military regime began preventing both families and aid agencies from visiting incarcerated Pakistani refugees.
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. After selling their possessions, they can't return, and only persecution and violence await them anyway. But they see no path forward either.
Jacobson acknowledges that fear of refugees permeates U.S. politics. However, he observes that the number of people involved is small. Giving them a home also would improve U.S.-Thai relations, frayed by the military's seizure of power.
Moreover, people persecuted for their faith are among the best candidates to receive asylum. Christians fleeing persecution in a majority-Muslim nation are about the lowest risk imaginable for terrorism. In fact, Jacobson points out, it would be hard to find a more pro-American group.
Indeed, both major political candidates have reason to support such an effort. Democrat Hillary Clinton is attempting to break into GOP constituencies, of which religious conservatives are among the most important. Republican Donald Trump wants to counteract charges of xenophobia. Taking in oppressed Christian refugees would be in unmistakable signal for both candidates to send.
One normally wouldn't expect to find Pakistani Christians in Bangkok, but such is the state of the world today. The U.S. has learned at great cost that it can't remake foreign societies. However, at little expense Americans can help save a few desperate people seeking to escape the same destructive sectarian forces that rage across the Middle East. The U.S. should do well by doing good.