Visiting Pakistani Asylum Seekers in Bangkok Detained and Imprisoned

I was recently at a human rights global conference in Bangkok, during which time a hand full of us became aware of the tragic, inhumane and degrading circumstances of Pakistani asylum seekers were facing in Thailand. 

We first met with a group of them in the cushy environment of our Hotel lobby, hearing their harrowing story of escaping their threat to life in Pakistan, and buying the cheapest ticket for themselves and their family they could find, ending up in Bangkok. 

We later visited them in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centers, in the community, where they lived in squalor and need, and even represented them in a Thai court, as advocates, putting up their Bail needs. 

The Background…. 

Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan: 

Pakistan practices blasphemy and apostasy laws, which sees many vulnerable minority groups in the country susceptible to the death sentence based on an accusation. 

The main religion in Pakistan is Islam. 

The offences relating to religion was first codified by India’s British rulers in 1860. Pakistan inherited these laws when it came into existence after the partition of India in 1947.

Between 1980 and 1986, a number of clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq, who wanted to “Islamicise” the laws, and to legally separate the Ahmadi community, declared non-Muslim in 1973. 

During the 1980s the blasphemy laws were created and expanded in several installments. In 1980, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages was made an offence, carrying a maximum punishment of three years in jail.

Section 295-C of the Penal Code in Pakistan ensures that those accused of blasphemy receive the death sentence. Often without a fair trial, without access to representation for the accused, and even without any evidence gathered against the accused.

Data provided by National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) shows a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmedis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various clauses of the blasphemy law since 1987.

The vast majority of these cases were lodged for desecration of the Koran – far fewer for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.

Minorities Targeted in Pakistan: 

Christians are the main targets by the fundamentalist and religious political parties. The law is being used for forced conversion, forcibly taking over the lands and business of Christians, hindering the preaching of Christian faith and for settling personal scores, rivalries and vengeance. 

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have proved to be the most injurious weapon of active religious persecution by the extremists with encouragement from the government.

Many innocent persons have been falsely accused under these laws and the number is still on the rise. Victims are severely manhandled and even murdered by mobs and individuals; their families go in hiding. They have to leave their home or even their homeland and their dear ones accept exile to save their lives. According to sources, 51 people accused of blasphemy were murdered before their respective trials were over. 

Minority groups, such as Christians, find themselves targeted by their perpetrators, who find an accusation of blasphemy is a more effective way of settling business or land disputes. 

Pakistan has more than 8,000 prisoners on death row, one of the world’s largest populations of prisoners facing execution. Pakistani law mandates capital punishment for 28 offenses, including murder, rape, treason, and blasphemy. Those on death row are often from the most marginalized sections of society, like Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death by the Lahore High Court on charges of blasphemy.

Just last month, it was reported that on Sunday, the 15 March that two suicide bombers etnereed two Christian Churches, while they were having their church service. My personal contact on the ground has since confirmed that the incident injured 85 people, and killed 22 in Lahore. Many families are in urgent need of medical care, and support for subsistence. 

A few weeks ago, it was also reported that a 17 year old Christian boy working in the kilns in Lahore was thrown into the fiery kiln by his Muslim employer, for asking for his pay. 

His employer called him a ‘dirty Christian’. The Christian boy remains alive, but in a critical condition, now, unable to work, and in need of urgent medical attention, for which he, or his family cannot pay. 

Pakistan’s Prime Minister has been urged by various international NGO’s to ask his government to live up to its promise to defend Pakistan’s religious minorities, and to tackle hate speech by implementing the following recommendations made by their Supreme Court:

  • Developing appropriate curricula at schools and colleges to promote a culture of religious tolerance;
  • Taking appropriate steps to ensure that hate speech in social media is discouraged and the perpetrators brought to justice;
  • Forming a National Council for minorities which will monitor and safeguard the rights of religious minorities.

Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2015 called Pakistan’s government to ensure the security of the country’s religious minorities from judicial injustice and attacks by militants.

Pakistani Asylum Seekers in Bangkok: 

During my time in Bangkok, I spoke to many Pakistani Christians living in the community and in the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok, awaiting their Refugee Status Determination interview by UNHCR. Many of them have been given a 2017/18 time frame for their first RSD interview from UNHCR. 

Until such time, under Thai laws, they are not allowed to work, they are required to pay for their own accommodation and food, they have limited access to health care, and their children do not have access to education programs. 

They are subject to imprisonment, which means inhumane living conditions, without amenities, access to sanitary needs, being stripped naked at night, separated from their families, limited sustenance, and asked for more bribes in the way of ‘fines’. 

It also means living in fear, not having any other assistance to meet their basic needs, uncertain when or how UNHCR can help. 

UNHCR in Thailand: 

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a formal national asylum framework. 

In the wake of the May 2014 military coup, immigration measures in the country were tightened and the policy restricting the movement of undocumented people in border areas was implemented more strictly.

The Government continues to assume primary responsibility for addressing statelessness and risks thereof in Thailand. UNHCR supports implementation of the nationality legislation and strategy that deals with people without clear legal status.

Refugees and asylum-seekers of more than 40 nationalities are coming to Thailand in increasing numbers. Many live in Bangkok and the surrounding urban areas with no legal means to sustain their livelihoods. Close to 200 are held in immigration detention centres. Those not detained risk arrest and detention, as well as deportation, if found without valid visas.

Thailand is a country of temporary refuge to approximately 7,600 asylum seekers, according to January 2015 statistics published by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).  Approximately 4,000 of these asylum seekers are Pakistani Christians. Since the first few days in March, Thai authorities—both police and military personnel—have intensified the scale of arresting, jailing, and terrifying this vulnerable population.

Politics in Thailand: 

In late 2014, Thailand was shamed by the United States Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, which placed Thailand at the lowest Tier possible for Human Trafficking. 

In response, the Prime Minister of Thailand has vow to crack down on human trafficking, announcing various policy initiatives to do so. 

In March, the Prime Minister made an inspiring speech on International Women’s Day held by UN Women, enforcing that Thailand was pro- gender equality. 

In that same month, he also announced that he was giving his authorities 180 days to crack down on labor trafficking through the fisheries industry. The second initiative announced was the taking of DNA from all beggars and homeless, to track them. There are all sorts of issues and unintended consequences for a policy such as this.

The Prime Minister of Thailand has vowed not to be on the lowest Tier in this year’s US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. In order to ensure this is the case, he is implementing policy on the run, with dire consequences. 

One consequence we are seeing on the ground in Thailand, is that the authorities are locking up anyone they perceive are part of trafficking. Aside from the obvious problems over crowding in prisons bring, is the misinterpretation of the issue of human trafficking. 

It is the victims of trafficking that are being targeted.

Those who have been smuggled into the country have not been trafficked. 

Smuggling and trafficking are two separate legal terms, with vastly different definitions. 

All of the asylum seekers I spoke to in Bangkok found their own way to Bangkok and did not engage people smugglers at all. 

They are therefore asylum seekers, with a right under international law to seek asylum for threat of life, under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

While Asylum seekers wait for their Refugee Status Determination, they have a right to wait for their case to be processed by UNHCR while in a safe environment, secure from arrests and detention and access to health care, basic requirements to subsist, such as accommodation, healthy food and drinking water, access to education for children under 16 years of age, and the possibility of being able to work.

It appears that the Thai government has grouped asylum seekers in with those who have been trafficked, with his policy initiatives to eradicate trafficking in his nation. 

The fact that asylum seekers have been swept up in this political initiative is beyond horrendous. 

They have no means of subsistence. 

They are required to pay for their own food and accommodation, often for large families. 

They cannot work, and they are not being assisted by UNHCR within the recommended 90 day suggested period. 

This situation has indeed left many vulnerable individuals as victims of various violations to their basic human rights. 

Basic Human Rights of Asylum seekers Violated: 

On March 2, 2015, two Pakistani Christian asylum seekers were suddenly arrested by Thai police.  Sporadic arrests seem to be taking place nearly every day since then, with a report from the Farrukh Saif Foundation listing the arrests of 54 adults and 8 children from March 2 -11. 

From our random interviews of numerous asylum seekers, it seems that most of the arrivals promptly go to the UNHCR office to register that they will submit a refugee application.  Shortly after registering, the UNHCR issues a registration paper which contains the name, short biographical information, and photograph of the applicant.  

However, the asylum seekers report that the Thai authorities who undertake the raids and arrests refuse to acknowledge any value or status conferred by these documents.

The apprehended refugee seekers are held in the overcrowded Central Jail of Bangkok upon arrest, where conditions are degrading and inhumane. The asylum seekers are held in the general prison population, making their human suffering even worse.  

We learned in our interviews that at the Central Jail, the asylum seekers are placed in cells with people being held for serious crimes.  The men have all of their hair shaved off, and at night they are forced to remove all of their clothes.

The conditions for the women are not much better, except that their hair is not shaved off or their clothes removed.  Mothers incarcerated with babies or small children are separated from them from 4:00 pm at night until 7:00 am, even if they are breast feeding.

Sometimes children go with their mother, but some children have been separated, without confirmation of where they actually are.  We learned about one story of a mother forced by the Thai police to sign a Thai language document which she could not read or understand.  When she asked why her baby was taken away, she was told that she had signed a document giving her child to the Thai authorities.  When she said that she did not know what she signed, she was told that this did not matter or change how her baby would be treated.

While incarcerated at the Central Jail, although it is not clear how quickly, the asylum seekers are allowed to be presented before a Thai judge. The criminal charges as an illegal alien are for overstaying the visa, and the judge requires that a fine be paid.

Two of our investigative team members attended one of these court sessions on Wednesday, March 25, during which Christian Pakistani asylum seekers had their cases heard.  They observed that the men were brought into the holding cells with shackles around their ankles and wrists.  The shackles were hammered together in the style of ancient slavery restraints.  Upon a man being brought before the judge, he remains shackled in the holding cell area, and he is presented by video to the judge.  

The court provides no official interpreter from Thai language to English or to Urdu, the language most Pakistanis speak. A type of negotiation takes place with the judge and an unofficial representative from the Pakistani Christian community who “interprets” to the prisoner in front of the video.  Our team members even observed a Thai lady, “Wendy,” who seemed to be negotiating with the judge the terms of the fines, and also seemed to be collecting bribes.

Once the fine is paid, the prisoner is transferred to the Immigration Detention Center (IDC).  We learned of no exceptions to this process of transferral to the IDC by Thai authorities.  Once at the IDC, the detentions of the asylum seekers can be lengthy, often extending beyond one year.  The UNHCR does give priority to providing interviews to asylum applicants held in the IDC, and in the past the interviews waited two months to be scheduled.  

Due to the volume of applicants being held in the IDC, interviews are taking place in an extended timeframe. The conditions within the IDC are slightly improved from the jail cells. Families are still separated, and only see one another for an hour a day, during visiting times. Children are still separated form their mothers.  Children stay in the detention facility with their mothers from 7:00 am until 4:00 pm, at which time the children stay in the day care or children’s center.  No education is provided to the detained children. 

There are reportedly 70-80 people held in cells which are 15/15 meters.  

Visitors to the detainees are allowed for one hour per day within a strict registration framework and schedule.  Outsiders can also bring food to the detainees, and some have commented that the detainees would otherwise starve without the outside food. There is only one immigration detention facility in Bangkok, and it is significantly overcrowded.  Only in extremely limited circumstances of urgent medical needs or women with small children can anyone pay a bond to be released prior to an interview with the UNHCR.  

The Thai government views anyone who has overstayed his or her visitor visa as an “illegal alien” and subject to being arrested and fined.  

Since Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the subsequent 1967 Protocol, it has no legal framework in which an asylum seeker is allowed to remain in Thailand for protection. 

This raises various human rights issues. Who’s responsibility is is to care for, protect and provide for these asylum seekers? 

What are the means by which they are able to subsist? 

What are the international standards to this regard? 

Some observations: 

1. Detention as a last resort: 

Detention should only ever be as a last resort, and no one should be subject to torture, or to cruel, degrading or inhumane treatment or punishment, as stated in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

According to UNHCR Guidelines, the detention of asylum seekers is, in the view of UNHCR inherently undesirable. This is even more so in the case of vulnerable groups such as single women, children, unaccompanied minors and those with special medical or psychological needs. 

Freedom from arbitrary detention is a fundamental human right and the use of detention is, in many instances, contrary to the norms and principles of international law. 

Those seeking asylum have a right to do so without arrest or threat of arrest. 

Detention of asylum seekers should be used as a last resort option by all nation states. 

All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, as stated by Article 10 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

Article 9.4 ICCPR states that everyone that is detained or deprived of liberty has the right to be taken in front of a court, and has the right to legal representation. 

Of key significance to the issue of detention is Article31 of the 1951 Convention. Article 31 exempts refugees coming directly from a country of persecution from being punished on account of their illegal entry or presence, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

2. The right to legal representation 

All asylum seekers have the right to legal representation and legal advice on matters pertaining to their application and processing of their refugee status.  

All are equal before the law, and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by law, as stated in Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

All asylum seekers have the right to interpreters who are able to present their case in a non partisan way.

3. The right to subsist 

All persons have the right to subsist. 

All asylum seekers and refugees have the right to access to shelter, nutritious food, clean water, health care, and education for their children. These are basic needs that people have the right to access. 

Everyone has a right to life, liberty and security of persons, as stated in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Everyone has the right to work according to Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families according to Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

4. Families should not be separated 

If families are separated, particularly children form their parents, particularly mothers form their breast-fed babies, this stands as a violation of Articles 5, 8 and 16 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Thailand is a signatory. 

The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, and is entitled to protection by society and the state, as stated by Article 23 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

5. The rights of the child 

We heard of 44 children in prison, requiring ‘fines’ to be released back to their families. 

We heard of mothers being forced to sign papers written in Thai – she could not read – declaring that she now gave ownership of her child to the state. 

We heard of breastfeeding mothers separated from their months old babies.

Article 22 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child makes the Refugee Convention immediately relevant to a consideration of the human rights of children in detention because it requires that a child who is seeking refugee status receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of the rights contained in the CRC and in other international human rights or humanitarian instruments. 

The CRC is a comprehensive treaty, which incorporates most of the provisions of the ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and adapts them to the needs of children. It also protects children from non-discrimination on the basis of sex, race, disability and other grounds, thereby reflecting provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons amongst others. The CRC also introduces specific provisions that relate only to children.

There are only two United Nations members who have not ratified the CRC – the USA and Somalia – making it the most widely ratified convention in the history of the UN.

Treatment of children in immigration detention requires an adherence to the following principles in international law:

  1. the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children (article 3(1))
  2. detention must be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time; children must not be deprived of liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily (article 37(b))
  3. children in detention have the right to be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the person (article 37(a), (c))
  4. children have the right to enjoy, to the maximum extent possible, development and recovery from past trauma (articles 6(2), 39)
  5. asylum-seeking and refugee children are entitled to appropriate protection and assistance (article 22(1))

Other important aspects of the CRC include the right to:

  • protection from all forms of physical or mental violence (article 19)
  • the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (article 24)
  • special care for children with disabilities (article 23)
  • education (articles 28 and 29)
  • rest, recreation and play (article 31)
  • special assistance for children who have been separated from their parents (article 20)
  • practise culture, language and religion (article 30)

6. The right to education 

Everyone has the right to education according to Article 26 of the UDHR. 

Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights.

Normative instruments of the United Nations and UNESCO lay down international legal obligations for the right to education. These instruments promote and develop the right of every person to enjoy access to education of good quality, without discrimination or exclusion. 

These instruments bear witness to the great importance that Member States and the international community attach to normative action for realizing the right to education. 

Education is a powerful tool by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and participate fully as citizens.

Customary international law prohibits refoulement, or return to a country of persecution.

UNHCR have a principle of assisting the most vulnerable first for their refugee status determination, and ensuring that they have been given asylum in a country, after being given a refugee status. 

Where to from here? 

We were able to write a report of our findings, advocating directly to UNHCR in Geneva, as well as our respective governments in our nations – Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Australia. 

Of course, Australia has been held by the United nations for violating human rights principles under our current Immigration policies, and there is much to be said here. 

In July 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Australia had breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and committed 143 human rights violations by indefinitely detaining 46 refugees on the basis of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation “adverse security assessments.” as reported by Human Rights Watch

The committee directed Australia to provide the refugees with an effective remedy, including release from detention, rehabilitation, and compensation. So far, the government has yet to act on the committee’s recommendations.

Australia has continued the practice of mandatory detention for those arriving in Australia without a visa. 

The United Nations Special Rapportuer on Torture has found that various aspects of Australia’s asylum seeker policies violate the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, submitting his report on 9 March 2015 to this effect reported the Human Rights Law Centre. 

For now, I will be advocating to our government to specific vulnerable special circumstances of Pakistani Asylum Seekers in Bangkok whom I met and interviewed, for humanitarian refugee status within our framework and capacity, for consideration of assessment for the Special Humanitarian Programme in line with our UNHCR agreement. 

Wish me luck – or, come and advocate with me.

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