More than 4,000 Christians have fled to Thailand to escape persecution in Pakistan. Fr Domenico Rodighiero, pastor at St Michael’s Catholic Church in Bangkok, said “When they arrive they don’t get a long-term visa or refugee status, so they are forced to live illegally. The local Church helps them as much as it can, with food and jobs, but it ihey isa or refugee status, so they are resources and t pensive and complcaited.s hard."
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – For the past three years, “large numbers of Pakistanis have been arriving In Thailand, fleeing Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which has deprived them of their land and assets,” said Fr Domenico Rodighiero, a missionary with the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and pastor at St Michael’s Catholic Church in Saphanmai, a northern suburb in Bangkok.
For over ten year, “our parish has helped refugees, and so we started to also take care of the latest arrivals." The latter include Christian refugees, “some 4,000, both Protestant and Catholic. In addition, there is a large number of Ahmadi Muslims, who are also persecuted in Pakistan.”
Most refugees fled to Thailand hoping for resettlement in other South-East Asian countries; however, once in the country, they find themselves at a dead end, since Thailand does not recognise them any rights, without the opportunity of leaving, except back to Pakistan.
“When people arrive, they get a tourist visa at the airport for a month, or 20 days,” Fr Rodighiero said. “In some cases, they are renewed, but only rarely because it is expensive and complicated.”
“Thailand, and this is the most important thing, has not signed the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. Thus, those who overstay their visa are not protected and can be locked up in detention centres or deported. This happens to both asylum seekers and (bona fide) refugees."
A year and a half ago, the parish of St Michael started to collect necessities for the thousands of refugees, later followed by the whole diocese.
"We started with essential things like food,” said the missionary. “We deal with everyone, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims. Muslims are ashamed sometimes because they realise that Christians emigrated because of Pakistani Muslims."
"All the refugees are divided into groups in some areas of Bangkok, and live in rented rooms with families,” Fr Rodighiero explained. "I visit their homes and celebrate Mass for the Christians. Then I go to the detention centre where illegal immigrants or those with expired visa are held.”
“Except for a few cases, the police does not go after these people, because they know where they are and can monitor them,” he explained. “Lately though, the centre has become overcrowded, and inmates can get out if they opt for bail (which usually costs about US$ 1,200) but this depends on the mood of the police.”
Thousands of refugees live in limbo, Fr Rodighiero noted, “because very few have a chance of getting recognised as refugees by the United Nations, since Bangkok does not recognise that status. However, they can emigrate. In view of the situation, their only option is to return to Pakistan. If they try to emigrate illegally, Thai police can stop them at the border."
The situation is made even more difficult by the fact that "the process by which the UN recognises refugee status can take years: years for the first interview, and years for an answer. In the meantime, these people have no right to work. Some receive aid from their families at home, but after four or five years, they run out of resources and end up having to return."
According to Fr Rodighiero, "the first thing to do would be to speed up UN procedures. From a political point of view, breaking the deadlock is more complicated because that would require changing Thai law. In addition, the United Nations in recent years has cut resources for refugees in Thailand, because there are other priorities in the world (Syria, Africa, etc.)."
"The Thai Church is generous and helps refugees find work,” the missionary explained. “Sometimes we help them go home or in special situations like when they get sick. But it is not easy, because there are so many and the needs are huge. The Church here is small and does not have a lot of resources. It is struggling to deal with such a big emergency."