Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslim Refugees in Thailand: In the Middle of Nowhere

A minority sect in Pakistan, the limbs, and lives, of the Ahmadiyya Muslims are under threat. They have faced religious and political attacks to the extent they have been declared apostate and non-Muslim by Pakistani’s religious and political elite. According to UNHCR, Thailand, until December 2015, there are 11,500 asylum seekers from Pakistan that took shelter in Thailand. Most of them are Ahmadiyya and Christians. An in-depth report by Amit tells us that though they are recognized refugees, they might be arbitrarily arrested anytime. They have nowhere to go. Here’s Different Truths’ Special Feature on the UN International Day of Families.

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On June 6, 2011, the world was a bit surprised when ninety-six Ahmadiyya Muslim refugees from Pakistan, after spending seven agonising months in the Immigration detention center in Thailand, Bangkok, were released. This was an exception rather than tradition in a country that does not formally recognize refugees. However, the world community was not surprised when on September 10, 2015, Thai police arbitrarily arrested scores of Pakistani and Somali asylum seekers. Sixty-four were quickly tried for overstaying their visas, fined, and sent to detention centre even though they possess “person of concern” documents issued by the United Nations refugee agency (Human Rights Watch, 2015). Another series of arrest of Ahmadiyya occurred on June 7, 9 and 15, 2011.

 A Pakistani refugee who is a member of the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic minority sect, carries his daughter as he is released from a detention centre in Bangkok June 6, 2011. PHOTO: REUTERS/ FILE

A Pakistani refugee who is a member of the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic minority sect, carries his daughter as he is released from a detention centre in Bangkok June 6, 2011. PHOTO: REUTERS/ FILE

Arbitrary arrest of Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslim refugees in Thailand has received considerable attention from international community and Thailand’s already poor human rights record have gone bad to worse. According to UNHCR, Thailand, until December 2015, there are 11,500 asylum seekers from Pakistan that took shelter in Thailand. Most of them are Ahmadiyya and Christians. One thing is common among all of them, even though they are recognized refugees, they might be arbitrarily arrested anytime. The fear of arrest is pervasive in their lives.

Thailand is certainly not a safe place for refugees. Thailand has neither accepted the 1951 Refugee convention’s principles, which are the key legal instruments governing the protection of refugees nor does it have any asylum procedure legislation. Asylum seekers and refugees frequently are being prosecuted, detained and deported under Thai Law on the basis of their illegal entry/presence in Thailand even though Thailand is a party to several UN Conventions and legally binding treaties.

According to Thai Immigration Act 1979, Sec.54, all illegal aliens, including asylum seekers and refugees,

Ahmadi refugees being released in Thailand

Ahmadi refugees being released in Thailand

can be detained on criminal charges. They can face a sentence of two months to two years of imprisonment. Illegal migrants are indefinitely detained until they are deported or self-deported. Along with arbitrary detention, refugees and asylum seekers suffer extremely restricted freedom of movement. A widespread pattern particularly is daily harassment by police and constant fear of being arrested.

The condition of Pakistani Ahmadiyya refugees and asylum seekers, like other refugees in Thailand, is more precarious due to their lack of legal status. Their detention raised significant concern, both in relation to the fundamental rights to liberty/security of the person and in terms of the standard and quality of treatment in immigration detention centre. However, comparing to the other groups of refugees in Thailand, Pakistani Ahmadiyya receive less attention and a lesser amount of international aid and advocacy.

Who are Ahmadiyya Muslim?

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is a sect of Islam. It was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, in 1889. He aroused hostility among Sunni Muslims mainly because of his own claim to prophet-hood. Orthodox Islam has never accepted Ghulam Ahmad’s visions and Ahmadiyya in Pakistan have faced religious and political attacks to the extent they have been declared apostate and non-Muslim by Pakistani’s religious and political elite. In 1984, Pakistani government decree banned the use of Islamic forms of worship by Ahmadiyya. Article 295 (C) made use of any derogatory language about Prophet Mohammad an offence punishable by death. Section 295 (C) commonly referred as ‘anti’-Ahmadiyya laws’ prohibit Ahmadiyya calling themselves Muslims, from referring to their religious belief as Islam, from preaching or propagating their religious belief inviting others to accept Ahmadiyya teachings and from insulting religious feelings of Muslims.

According to International Religious Freedom Report, 2014, citizens frequently used blasphemy laws to harass religious minorities and vulnerable Muslims, and to settle personal scores or business rivalries. Societal elements also used “anti-Ahmadiyya” provisions of the penal code to justify abuse and discrimination of Ahmadiyya. An NGO, Asian Human Rights Commission has collected cases of killings, sectarian violence, lynching and false implication of blasphemy charges against Ahmadiyya during 2015 and 2016.

Lack of protection from Pakistan government and prevailing insecurity has prompted Ahmadiyya Muslims to seek safe refuge in Thailand. Other dominant reasons for Ahmadi to come to Thailand is the available network of their community member, relaxed visa regulations, and possibility of resettlement into a third country with UNHCR assistance.

Plight of Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslim refugees in Thailand

The sporadic arrival of Pakistani Ahmadiyya asylum seekers started, in 2009, in Thailand. Ahmadiyya travel to Bangkok on a tourist visa. Once their visa expires, they become ‘illegal entrants’, therefore attracting arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention. They have two options. Either they have to self-deport or to be resettled in third country. Once in Bangkok, they apply for refugee status with UNCHR. Granting of refugee status could take two to five years. This is where their misery starts. Extremely long and uncertain Refugee Determination Process aggravates vulnerability of Ahmadiyya asylum seekers to arbitrary arrest, detention and exploitation by Thai police. While Ahmadiyya asylum seekers wait desperately for UNHCR to recognize them and facilitate their resettlement to another country, they are forced to live in fear and uncertainly. Some of them hide in Thai cities, unlucky ones get arrested.

Interestingly, Thailand does not allow these asylum seekers to settle on Thai soil thus there is bleak possibility of getting Thai citizenship to Ahmadiyya asylum seekers in Thailand.

A study conducted by this author at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace, Mahidol University, Thailand, demonstrated the plight of detained Pakistani Ahmadiyya asylum seekers in Thai detention centre. In narratives of detained Ahmadiyya asylum seekers, a pattern has emerged, which confirmed and recognized their miseries in Immigration detention centre.

Overcrowding, lack of space unhygienic condition, maltreatment and corruption of Thai official, lack of health care facilities and safe drinking water, separation of families and sever restrictions of freedom of movement are quite a common phenomenon inside the detention centre. Those asylum seekers able to avoid arbitrary arrest, fear of arrest is pervasive in their lives. Due to lack of legal status, like most of the refugees, Ahmadiyya cannot work legally, unable to avail public service and private services such as medical and banking. Refugees are denied opening bank account makes it difficult for them to receive money from abroad. Due to lack of valid papers they face immense difficulty in renting accommodation. Due to fear of arrest, Ahmadiyya asylum seekers frequently change their residence. Even those who dare to rent accommodation to refugees face up to 10 years in jail or a fine of THB 100,000 while providing them with transport risk five years in prison or a fine of up to THB 50,000.

Complex and Varied Response to Refugees in Thailand

Thailand response to refugees has been complex and varied. From granting temporary stay to towing

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

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

them into the high seas, Thai refugee policy makers tends to see refugee issues through the prism of national security, sovereignty and available international aid. In 2011, 96 Ahmadiyya asylum seekers and refugees were released from detention centre only after assurance of their resettlement in a third country. However, other detained refugees were not released.

Arbitrary detention constitutes an inherent part of Thailand’s refugee management practice, and it remains the nightmare of any refugee in Thailand. As a state party of various human rights treaties, Thailand is obliged to ensure the rights of every asylum seeker and refugee within Thai jurisdiction. Refugees without secure legal status and even people, who do not meet the definition of refugee should be protected through the human rights instruments. Even though Thai government has allowed UNHCR to conduct refugee status determination process for non-Burmese refugees such as Pakistani Ahmadiyya, identification documents issued by UNHCR for refugee protection are not effective in preventing their arrest.

Due to the lack of legal documents, refugees and asylum seekers are unable to claim their rights and respond to their mistreatment. Along with incorporation of International Human Rights Law into domestic Thai law, there is a need to stop increasing institutionalisation of the detention practice.

Generally, Thai government employs the policy of detention to discourage refugees from entering Thailand ostensibly and to counter human trafficking. Contrary to popular belief, this policy does not deter arrival of persons desperately in need of refuge. On the contrary, detention may even provide additional grounds for substantiating their applications for refugee status and can attract more to come.

Need for Comprehensive Refugee Policy in Thailand

Thailand needs a comprehensive and systematic refugee policy. The most efficient way to safeguard refugee rights and to execute international obligations for refugees is to pass national asylum law that incorporates the provision of the international treaty. Failing to adopt any asylum legislation does not free a country for its obligations under treaties to which it is Party or, indeed, under customary international law. States cannot use national legislation to reduce their human right obligations. Human rights should be granted to all asylum seekers particularly right to freedom of arbitrary arrest and free movement.

Thai Immigration act should be in harmony with the international human rights standards to offer enough protection to refugees and asylum seekers. Thailand needs to subscribe to an adaptive approach towards human rights discourse. For the purpose of solving migration issues, the state needs to shed some of its sovereignty in rectifying international human rights instruments and in respecting its human rights obligation. On the basis of sovereignty, it cannot defend harsh measures against refugees and asylum seekers

Along with immediate stop of persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, human rights of other religious minorities such as Christians and Hindus, in Pakistan, must be protected and respected. Pakistan must share equal responsibility to respect human rights of Ahmadiyya Muslims as Thailand does. Both countries need to be held accountable for the violations of human rights. Increasing religious persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan would produce more refugee outflow and would lead to the creation of a human rights crisis in Southeast Asia.

©Amit Singh

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Amit Singh

Amit Singh

Amit singh is a Norway based Independent Human rights researcher writes on refugees, religious conflicts, discrimination and human rights issue.
Amit Singh