“I don’t want to go back,” Naomi* said, her voice thick with emotion. The middle-aged woman wiped away tears with the tail of her headscarf as she recounted how a Muslim group beat her husband near death over an alleged blasphemy charge.
Corinth Baptist Church volunteers share a meal with Pakistani asylum seekers in Bangkok. Pictured: (right) Lee Johnson, (middle) Jasmyn Crank, (left of middle) Carrie Chappell. Names of refugees withheld.
Naomi’s youngest two sons, ages 17 and 12, sat quietly on the concrete floor. They chimed in occasionally to help their mother when certain English phrases eluded her. Floor fans churned the steamy air in a small apartment near Bangkok’s city center as Naomi told Biblical Recorder staff about the events that forced her family to flee Pakistan.
The sum of their belongings lined the walls of the cash-only, one-room residence. The family lives in hiding from the Thai government, so conventional housing options are off limits.
Naomi’s circumstances are typical among Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in Thailand. Forced out of their homes by violent persecution and pressed into hiding by harsh penalties for undocumented immigrants in Thailand, asylum seekers wait in the shadows, hoping to find solace in the United Nations’ refugee resettlement program.
Naomi narrated a recent telephone conversation with her oldest son, 21, who was arrested and deported to Pakistan earlier this year with his father, Naomi’s husband.
“Mama, how long will we hurt?” he asked. “Trust in Jesus,” she said between sobs. “Just pray.”
Hearing the unheard
Six years ago, Calvary Baptist Church in Bangkok became aware of the growing refugee crisis in their city, and with the help of volunteer teams from the United States, they are providing critical aid and compassionate care.
Calvary’s senior pastor, Martin Chappell, and his wife, Carrie, are former career missionaries with the International Mission Board (IMB). They accepted a voluntary retirement incentive offered by the IMB last year as part of a staff reduction to counteract budget deficits but decided to remain on staff at Calvary.
“The refugee ministry started because God brought refugees to our church and we heard their story,” said Carrie. “It began with Sri Lankan refugees, but it built up steam very quickly.”
BR photo by Seth Brown
Immigration enforcement officials conduct raids periodically of suspected asylum seeker residences, arresting and detaining men, women and children who do not hold a valid visa. Thailand is not a party to the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention and does not acknowledge UNHCR refugee status.
News reports say more than 11,000 Pakistani asylum seekers have fled to Thailand. Many of these people arrive from Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city. The region is home to some of the country’s largest Christian populations.
One of the church’s early initiatives was a clothing drive. The Chappells said they were overwhelmed when, after only advertising the outreach by word-of-mouth, hundreds of asylum seekers arrived. The large crowd even drew the attention of local police and immigration enforcement. So, they began to regroup and talk about new ministry and outreach strategies, which led to their current visitation schedule for asylum seekers scattered across the city and in detention.
With financial help from Global Hunger Relief and Baptist Global Response, this international Baptist church has been able to purchase, organize and distribute monthly food bags and hygiene items. Calvary invites partner congregations, like Corinth Baptist Church in Elizabeth City, N.C., to join them in the outreach effort. In recent years, Corinth has sent a total of six volunteer teams to Thailand to help distribute critical resources and spend time with asylum seekers, listening to their stories about flights from affliction and the search for hope.
Those humanity-filled moments are important, asylum seekers said, because many of them rarely go out in public for fear of being reported or noticed by immigration police. The social interaction is especially enjoyable to children and teenagers. There are very few educational options available to asylum seekers, and in most cases, the peer interaction provided by classroom settings is out of reach.
Pakistani asylum seekers typically identify as either Christian or Ahmadiyya, a sect of Islam not recognized by majority Muslim groups. Both Christians and Ahmadis often become the victims of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, which carry a potential death sentence.
Multiple asylum seekers from Pakistan told the Recorder that even the thinnest allegations of insult against Islam can lead to mob violence. Blasphemy charges are also used to settle unrelated disputes. Reporting these injustices to police has little effect, they continued.
Law enforcement and government officials can be apathetic to such cases, and even if a dispute reaches a trial court, witnesses offering public testimony are often intimidated by threats of further violence. So, these victims choose their only apparent option: leave the country. Thailand is a common destination for Pakistani asylum seekers because it is easy to obtain a 30-day tourist visa. Upon entry, they apply for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and begin to pray for resettlement.
UNHCR’s refugee status determination process is intended to take a few months, asylum seekers said, but many report wait times of up to six years. In nearly every case, they overstay Thailand’s tourist visa and risk detainment by immigration enforcement officials.
Despite being UN-registered asylum seekers, they face up to five years in prison for visa overstays of less than one year, and up to 10 years in prison for overstays of more than one year.
Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) was the focus of an undercover news report last year for its notoriously poor conditions and child imprisonment. Calvary’s refugee ministry team is familiar with the plight of these detainees. Volunteers go through the arduous visitation process weekly. In order to gain access to the IDC, visitors must wait in line to file paperwork with immigration officials prior to the hour-long visitation period, including copies of a valid passport and the detainee’s name, nationality and government-issued identification number.
Guards search visitors as they enter the facility to ensure no restricted items, such as cameras or recording devices, are brought into the building. The 60-foot square visitation room is divided in half by two 7-foot-tall security fences. Guards pace the empty space between the fences as visitors and detainees strain their voices over the commotion in an attempt to communicate.
In a recent visit to the IDC, Recorder staff noted more than a dozen women being detained for visa overstays, along with a half-dozen imprisoned children, ranging in age from infants to teenagers. Amid a small group of women carrying toddlers, a detainee held up her eight-month old daughter, saying in broken English that she was born behind bars.
One mother expressed resigned gratitude that her teenage son was detained with her, because many families are torn apart during immigration raids and unable to reestablish contact with one another. One of the most common questions refugee ministry volunteers hear from detainees, is “will you visit my family and come back next week to tell me if they are OK?”
Detainees report overcrowding, poor nutrition and insufficient access to health care. Imprisoned men said they rotate sleeping schedules, because the group cell is too compact for each person to lie down at once. News reports about a Pakistani Christian man who died in immigration detention in late May 2017 were confirmed by sources inside the IDC. The refugee ministry team brought bags of carefully selected, nutrient-rich foods for the detainees they visited. Each volunteer spent time listening to stories told by asylum seekers, learning about their families, discovering what kind of aid they needed and praying for them.
Naomi’s husband and oldest son were held in immigration detention before they were deported. She’s thankful they are alive, but she knows they are now in danger. The anxiety caused by the separation of her family exaggerates Naomi’s health problems. Without access to proper medical care, high blood pressure and diabetes are a constant concern. Multiple asylum seekers told the Recorder that some hospitals deny service to migrants unless they hold a valid visa.
Naomi’s husband and oldest son cannot go back to their hometown, she said, so they currently live in another region of Pakistan. Her husband changed his appearance to avoid detection.
Naomi longs to see her family reunited and resettled, but she has refused to willingly take her youngest sons back to Pakistan due to violence. The family was granted interviews with the French and Spanish embassies but denied entry to either nation. A fresh wave of emotion washed over her as she continued, “I sent two applications to [Donald] Trump – to American Embassy – but I got no answer.”
According to Naomi, her family’s UNHCR refugee status determination case has been closed, and if their current appeal is unsuccessful, she and the two boys will be deported later this year.
Donate to help fund Calvary’s refugee food ministry at gobgr.org/projects/refugees.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article is the first in a three-part series covering the plight of Pakistani refugees in Thailand and the Baptists ministering to them.)
Other articles in the series: