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Insecure minorities: Threatened at home, jailed abroad

The refugees, all members of the Ahmadi community, had been in detention for more than six months. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

By Abdul Manan

BANGKOK: Tahir Mehmood Adil, an Ahmadi from Sialkot, was kidnapped in 2009 by militants, held captive for 36 days and threatened with beheading. His cousin, Sajjad, negotiated successfully for his release. A few days later, however, Sajjad was shot dead and Adil received a text message saying he would be next.

That was when Adil fled to Thailand with his wife and three children. On arrival, he was arrested by Thai immigration authorities who tore up their asylum papers and took them to Bangkok’s notorious Immigration Detention Cell (IDC). The family was detained here for the next seven months in the most inhumane conditions.

Detained refugees

Adil is one of 96 such refugees from Pakistan whose fate hangs in balance as they are transferred from one detention centre to another, despite having their status recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

By December 2010, the Thai immigration bureau detained 91 Pakistanis seeking asylum on grounds of religious persecution in their home country. Another 38 were detained in the early months of 2011.

Of the 131 Ahmadis at Bangkok’s Suan Phlu IDC, 35 were sent back in the last week of December. The remaining 96 refused to budge on grounds that it amounted to suicide. These persons were finally released with the support of the Thai committee for refugees in June.

The group now reports to the immigration bureau every month. Their situation has improved as compared to their time in the IDC but they are not allowed to leave their residence without permission from the local police.

Inhumane conditions

This group, including 34 children, now lives in two separate confinement centres and apartments in a Bangkok suburb. Each family has a single room. For them there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The refugees are awaiting resettlement to third countries, mainly the US.

The conditions at the detention centre were worse, says Adil as he looks back at his time there. The cells where they were detained were designed to hold around 40 but housed 150 detainees. Women and children were separated from the men.

The choice was clear. Stay in the IDC or go back to Pakistan. It is an unending battle. Two of the detainees who have been in IDC for 23 months were granted bail but the UNHCR refused to recognise their status. Two others who were at the last step of their resettlement process were told to repeat the entire process.

Painful process

Adil told The Express Tribune that everyone had a story to tell. He acknowledged that even though they were aware of Thailand not being a signatory to the UNHCR’s convention on refugees, their fate in Pakistan was one which would be worse and that is why they decided to come here.

Adil said that the process of seeking asylum and refugee status from UNHCR was lengthy and painful. He said interviews don’t take place for months, much beyond the mandatory three-month period. The resettlement is another lengthy process in which refugees are informed about their final destination.

Individual stories

The stories go on. Qamar and Mansoor who had been in the centre for the last two years had been granted bail but they were later refused refugee status. After their release, their resettlement process had slowed down.

One Rana Qamar had been detained along with his two children while his wife was in Pakistan. Qamar’s 11 year old daughter, Areesha, was detained for seven months all alone.
Another detainee, Adnan Rashid, said that he was in detention but his wife and two children were not. He feared for them.

Doctors who escaped targeted killings at home are also part of the group. Dr Hafeez Ahmad, who hails from Karachi said that after his colleagues, Dr Hameedullah Shah and Dr Najamul Hassan were shot dead he decided to leave. But not after shifting his clinic four times in a bid to discourage those targeting him.

Kashif Butt whose wife gave birth to their child in the IDC recalls his horrible experience. When his wife was taken to the nearby hospital, her legs were tied so she could not run away. In another case, a Pakistani woman’s feet were bound when she went in for a caesarean procedure.

Every day is a living hell for many. The Ahmadiyya Community representative in Thailand Imran Ahmad told The Express Tribune that the future of those family members who later joined their next of kin hangs in balance.

Despite all the frustration and the fear, most are fearful of returning to Pakistan. Some laugh and others cry at the mention of their home country. But all pray for their future and for those left behind.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2011.