Stuck in Limbo, Bangkok’s Hidden Urban Refugees Scrape by

By The Associated Press
TH-refugees-620-March2015 Pakistani refugees sit in a temporary room after being released on bail in Bangkok, June 6, 2011.

They lived a middle-class life in Pakistan, but a death threat signed by a Muslim extremist group – with bullets attached – compelled this Christian family to leave it all behind 18 months ago.

Fluent in English, the father ran a moving company; the mother taught art. They had a three-bedroom apartment with a modern kitchen and a PlayStation for the kids.

Together with some Catholic friends, they helped run a small, free school for poor children.

One morning in 2013, a warning signed by a militant Muslim group was slipped under the door of the school office.

"Stop giving missionary education to Muslim children. Otherwise, we will shoot you and your children," it said.

Ten days later, the school received another warning – this time with three bullets. The school volunteers filed a complaint to the police.

The couple's account was corroborated by documents and several people contacted by the Associated Press.

They say the school never taught Christianity to Muslim children, but did teach Bible stories and prayers to the Christian kids when their Muslim classmates were not there.

Now, the Pakistani family lives in a barren room in Bangkok, where the three children share a double bed and the parents sleep on the floor. They cook on a propane burner on a tiny balcony.

With no legal status in Thailand, they must remain mostly hidden while they scrape by on odd jobs and donations.

Their children, all elementary-school age, don't go to school and spend entire days indoors.

"We just wanted to save our lives," said the father, who has overstayed his visa. Like the dozen other asylum seekers interviewed for this story, he asked not to be identified for fear of arrest.

"We didn't know anything when we arrived. Now we are just trying to survive."

A growing problem

This, increasingly, is the life of the asylum-seeker and refugee.

There are 14 million of them under the mandate of the U.N. refugee agency, and more than half do not live in the camps they are often associated with.

A growing number live in cities and towns around the world. Across Asia, from India to the Pacific islands, there are about half a million such "urban refugees," according to the agency.

The surge of urban refugees challenges reluctant host countries like Thailand, which in the past has allowed refugees from surrounding countries into border camps, but doesn't legally recognize asylum-seekers or refugees.

It's relatively easy to obtain a Thai tourist visa, one reason the number of asylum-seekers in Bangkok has jumped several-fold to more than 8,000 over the past few years, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The biggest and fastest-growing contingent here is from Pakistan, experts say, while other big groups come from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Somalia and Syria.

When they land, many are shocked to discover they face arrest once their visas run out. They expect the UNHCR will protect them, but refugee advocates say Thai police generally ignore U.N. letters declaring them to be "persons of concern."

Thailand never signed the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention that protects refugees' rights; neither have neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, where thousands more asylum-seekers live.

So these urban refugees scrape by in limbo.

"This is the future," said Mireille Girard, the Thailand representative for the UNHCR. "We really have to adjust to providing assistance in urban environments."

Relief, then anxiety

Human-rights groups say Pakistan's religious minorities are increasingly persecuted – not only Christians but Hindus and Ahmadis, an Islamic sect rejected by mainstream Muslims.

Although no one has been executed under the country's blasphemy law, it has been used to threaten non-Muslims and incite mob violence.

An estimated 12,000 religious minorities have fled Pakistan since 2009, according to Farrukh Saif, who heads a minority advocacy group that supports asylum-seekers in Bangkok.

The threatened couple hid for a month, then packed two suitcases and boarded a midnight flight for Bangkok. They chose Thailand because friends said it was easy to get a tourist visa, and because other Christians had gone there.

When they arrived, relief quickly turned to anxiety.

The father went to the UNHCR to register as an asylum-seeker and was shocked to learn he would have to wait two years – until September 2015 – just to get his first interview in the "refugee status determination" process. Now, for new arrivals, the wait is three years.

The U.N. agency has more than 60 staffers in Bangkok working to verify thousands of asylum-seekers' stories and determine whether they are refugees with well-founded fears of persecution, said the UNHCR's Girard. Each case must be examined to screen out those trying to exploit the system, such as those trafficked by smuggling rings.

"We have to be very strict in recognizing who is a genuine refugee and who is not," she said.

For those waiting, money quickly becomes an issue.

After exhausting their savings, the Pakistani family visited churches for support. Most turned them down. Eventually, one congregation offered about $100 a month.

The mother found a job teaching English to Thai children. She earns 8,000 baht ($250) a month, enough to cover rent, utilities and a bit of food.

The father, jobless for many months, recently found work at a nursery, but that means their three children are alone in the apartment all day. And now both parents could be arrested for working illegally.

"When I go to work, I don't know if I'm going to come back to my kids or not," said the father.

Despite the hardships, they will not return home.

"We'll just face the same sort of threats again," the Pakistani mother said. "I'm not willing to sacrifice my children for that."

The father says he has no choice but to wait for the cumbersome UNHCR procedure to get underway.

"We just want to go where our lives are safe," he said with a sigh, "and we have some freedom."


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