Choosing Between Shadows: Part II
Editor’s Note: This essay is the second in a two-part series on persecuted religious minorities fleeing Pakistan and seeking asylum in Thailand. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the situation at hand, take the time to start with the first essay, which focuses on Pakistani Christians.
Bangkok is a city celebrated for its beauty and tradition, and also one notorious for a nefarious underbelly, driven largely by the same tourist market that buttresses the Thai economy. It’s an unfair reputation that has ignored or quickly forgotten the human lives that stay there, beneath the gloss and grit filtered into movies and documentaries, among the outskirts. The first part of this series covered the lives of Christians, who fled persecution in Pakistan, and are staying in Thailand hoping to be resettled to a third country. These populations have no legal way to earn money to support their families over the one to five years it will take for them to be processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The unfortunate among them are caught by Thai authorities with expired Visas, and unable to pay the fines of overstaying they are then sent to the Immigration Detention Center (IDC), a jail exclusively for immigrants and asylum seekers.
Among the thousands seeking asylum in Thailand is another group from Pakistan, largely unknown to the world, called the Ahmadi. Having been killed, bombed, tortured, and arrested in their home country they have fled to Bangkok, hoping against hope their pain might be understood, and that they also might finally find somewhere they can live safely and in peace. Below is a personal account of an Ahmadi woman facing exactly this fate, as well as stories from those inside the IDC of the squalid, violent, and dangerous conditions they say they faced inside. All names in this piece have been changed or withheld for the protection of those interviewed.
Ahmadiyya Islam began in 19th Century Colonial British India, before Pakistan and India became mutually independent. The sect was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who claimed to be the Mahdi, the Messiah Islam awaits to bring the end days and the second coming of Jesus (Isa). Mirza saw the origins of Islam as peaceful, and sought a return to this, emphasizing his presence as a fulfilment of Islamic prophesy and embodiment of the pacifist yet divinely authoritative nature of Jesus. Ahmadiyya Muslims refer to themselves as Ahmadi, with millions of followers around the world.
For their success in spreading globally, the Ahmadi have also been met with a great deal of resistance and in many cases persecution. Ahmadi are viewed by many as innovators, heretics, and non-believers. In Pakistan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh they have often been the targets of assassinations, mob attacks, arbitrary arrests and harassment by authorities, as well as countless human rights violations. Their ties to the Colonial era, similar to Christians in Pakistan and across Asia, have helped further make them scapegoats as agents of the West infiltrating and altering the culture and people. In a time where the Pakistani Government is at war with the Taliban, the United States is carrying out drone strikes periodically, the possibility of war with India is constant and looming, and political parties inside the country have been assassinating each other's members and leadership for decades, it is clear how easily people become fearful of each other, and in particular those most different from themselves. It has become equally clear that those who suffer most from this division are those most vulnerable, unprotected, and under-represented inside of the society.
As a result, the Ahmadi have been fleeing places of persecution for a long time, where for instance many have been living inside of the United Kingdom for generations. Waves of people trying to escape continue to overflow out of the country, and many have arrived in Thailand, where they have sought to be accepted as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The process has taken years for many, and like the Pakistani Christians mentioned in part one of this series, they have tragically few options for survival while they wait.
Maryam and Saed grew up outside of Lahore, where they both were raised in Sunni Muslim families. Maryam's father was high ranking in the Pakistani military, and Saed's family had a military background as well. When Maryam was attending university, her father arranged for her to be married to a 60 year old man. She was repulsed by the idea of marrying a man so much older than herself, and had fallen in love with Saed even before this. At the same time, Saed had begun studying teachings of the Ahmadiyya Muslims after he expressed interest in the faith of his Ahmadi co-workers. He began to identify himself as Ahmadi in private and among his co-workers.
Fearing for a future forced into a loveless marriage with an elderly man, Maryam and Saed fled Lahore for Jauharabad. Maryam recalls, “We stay there about 3 months until my family came to know from my university that I was not attending my classes. My father investigated the university visitor records and they found my husband name in the record, then they went to my husband's home and ask about where he was working.” Her father then learned from Saed's co-workers of his conversion to Ahmadiyya. Already angered that she had dishonored him by refusing the marriage he arranged for her, he was especially furious that she had done so with a member of a perceived heretical sect. Maryam's father filed a complaint with the police that his daughter had been kidnapped by Saed. It was November of 2012.
Maryam's father searched relentlessly for her and Saed. A friend alerted them that he had discovered what city they were living in, and they fled again to Islamabad, but only stayed briefly because Maryam had many family members there and feared it was only a matter of time before they were spotted. They moved again to a small town called Chitral, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. “The language was different there and nobody knew us. We were living peacefully but one day after too much rain a flood come and everything was destroyed. The army came to rescue people and they were entering the data of people who was living there. We were afraid of the army as my father had informed army about us. The next day we moved all night, walking in the mountains,” she said.
They went to the next town they could reach, avoiding police and military as they moved, until they finally got to a bus where they would plan their next move. While they were waiting a friend called them and informed them of dreadful news, “My husband's friend told us that the situation is very bad, your father contact with Lashkar e Jhangwi and they issued a fatwa against you. That they focused their case on my husband being Ahmadi who they believed kidnapped my father's daughter.” Laskar e Jhangwi is a proscribed terrorist group by both the United States and the Government of Pakistan, infamous for their attacks and killing of religious minorities in Pakistan. Maryam and her Husband reached out again to every friend and contact they thought could offer them any help or refuge, but all refused. Maryam herself had converted to Ahmadiyya Islam, and as a last resort they called a friend from the Ahmadi community in their home town outside of Lahore to see if they could help at all. He told them to meet with the Imam at the Mosque.
They decided to risk returning, in the hope that it might offer them a way out. When they went to the mosque Maryam says her father was waiting for them with a gang of men in the parking lot. They attacked Saed, but fortunately they were both able to escape. They went into hiding for a month, trying again fruitlessly to get help from anyone they thought might be sympathetic to their needs. They contacted Saed's Ahmadi friend again, who had left Lahore for Karachi. He advised them again to speak with the Imam from the same Ahmadi Mosque Maryam's father had tracked them to before. Feeling every option was exhausted, and without resources to support themselves much longer, they decided to return once more, and once more Maryam's father and a gang of men spotted them and followed them to the mosque.
“When we went there a second time again my father was there with many people. They put my husband in a van and took him to my father's home and locked him in the room and force him to give divorce.” Maryam says her husband was detained and tortured for five days by her father and the men he had with him while she was locked in a separate room in the same house. She says after five days the police came, alerted by neighbors concerned over what was happening. The police negotiated a release in exchange for Saed divorcing Maryam. Unbeknown to her family, Maryam was also pregnant at this time. While the police were organizing the divorce and compensation to Maryam's father, she managed to arrange a flight for herself and her husband out of Pakistan and into Thailand. They left, as they had many times before, in the middle of the night in January of 2014.
Maryam and Saed arrived in Bangkok with very little money. They stayed with a family they knew before getting their own apartment in the outskirts of the city. Saed began to show symptoms of trauma from the time he was tortured and the years they spent hiding. He became detached, and at times volatile. At other times he was depressed and unresponsive. Maryam became aware that much of the survival of herself and her unborn child would depend on her. She found work under the table for a Pakistani Ahmadi in a shop on Bangkok's riverfront market, a tourist destination of dozens of shops called The Asiatique. There she did office work for a Pakistani man under the table, but after one month’s time he had left the country and refused to pay her.
With even less money for having tried to support herself, Maryam needed to find a way to get medical treatment for herself and her coming child. Local charities and agencies gave limited aid, but she said no one was willing to pay for her hospitalization when she gave birth. She began to seek help wherever she could. First she sought help from the local mosques in Bangkok, but they refused. In one case she was mocked by the women working there for begging. In another incident she was told to go to the Arabic district and beg, because Arabs had more money than Thais. She sought help from the Christian organizations in Bangkok, some of which provided her with small rations of food, but nothing more. Finally, Maryam says, after begging one final time, she gave birth to her first son alone and on the pavement outside of the mosque while being ignored by passersby.
At this time, her Husband's symptoms worsened. He became angry, violent, and confused. Maryam recalls an incident where in a profound state of stress Saed began to bleed from his nose inexplicably as he experienced intense flashbacks. Maryam says she alerted the UNHCR of his deteriorating condition, but they were unresponsive. One night his symptoms escalated, where he attacked her, her son, and several of the men in their apartment complex. He was hospitalized in the Psychiatric Wing of a hospital in Bangkok and Maryam was moved into a separate apartment with her son by the UNHCR. Saed remained hospitalized for over a month. When he was released he was placed on several strong medications treating depression, anxiety, and psychotic behaviors. The medications helped many of his symptoms, but also caused him to sleep 16 to 18 hours a day, and to be confused and unresponsive often when he was awake.
In April of 2015, Thai police raided Maryam's apartment complex and arrested her and her baby. She remained there until late May of the following month when an ex-patriot Catholic Priest who was aware of her case arranged bail for her and her son. While in detention Maryam lived in crowded quarters with dozens of other women. Illness was frequent, and her baby also became sick. Maryam says that her baby became sick with fever in the IDC, and after begging the guards for three days a doctor finally prescribed some medicine for the baby, but refused to visit in person.
After her release she returned to living with Saed, who she found unable to care for himself due to the medication he was taking. She found herself responsible for taking care of herself, her sedated husband, and a small baby boy, while unable to find any work to support them. Her days became filled with travelling around Bangkok to any church or charity that might offer assistance, and most often they refused to offer any. “One organization, the Thai staff said 'Why are you here? You should go back to Pakistan,’” she said. Her choices became waiting in hunger and suffering to be relocated to another country, or returning home where she felt certain her father would find and kill her. She contemplated suicide periodically, saying death could be her only escape.
In the Spring of 2016, the UNHCR denied Maryam and Saed refugee status. They said that Saed's testimony was too vague, and he had difficulty explaining events, and recalling information when pressed for further details. At the time of their interview, Saed was on very high doses of medications that cause memory loss and confusion. They did not object to any of Maryam's testimony in the rejection.
In March of this year, Maryam gave birth to her second child. The UNHCR denied Maryam and Saed Refugee Status two months later.
The Immigration Detention Center:
While conducting interviews for this story, I met with several individuals who had been detained in Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center. Many of them came from various religious and national backgrounds. The stories of individuals who were there at separate times and had no connection to each other outside of the IDC corroborated each other.
Inside of the IDC witnesses recalled several episodes of violence between different ethnic and religious groups. In one instance a young male witness recalled fighting between Muslims and Christians being especially bad, usually escalating over prayer times. In other cases, he recalled that people divided themselves by country and would fight each other. Several witnesses stated that fighting in the IDC resulted in severe punishments, including beatings by guards, refusal to provide food or medicine when needed, and in some severe cases removal from their room and placement into what are called “punishment rooms.”
Three witnesses told me about the use of particular cells inside of the IDC to punish inmates who are considered to be problematic. The room has a room leader who is also a prisoner. Witnesses said that they believed the room leader is instructed by the guards to conduct beatings of these prisoners as retribution for behavior in the detention center. One source detailed an account where three Somali men were accused of making problems in the center and sent to this room where inmates placed a sheet over the security camera and beat the Somali men close to death, finally making them bow and pray to the room leader in order to not kill them. In another similar incident, a resident of the IDC recalled a Sri Lankan man who was placed in punishment and beaten severely by the other inmates, to the point he had difficulty sitting or laying down.
In another instance, a young woman stated that she witnessed the removal of men into these rooms, and had seen the guards themselves beat the prisoners with leather belts as punishment for smuggling cell phones into the detention center. Another man also recalled the police severely beating prisoners with batons for smuggling mobile telephones into the IDC. The same man said that if an inmate is a problem and becomes sick, the guards would beat them when they asked for medicine.
All former prisoners of the IDC that I spoke with stated that illness was extremely common, and usually untreated. Several families and individuals said they had witnessed people, including a Somali child in one case, dying from untreated sickness.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said he was unable to corroborate these accounts, but did link to HRW's own findings, which detail prolonged detainment of asylum seekers in horrid conditions, separation of family members, and fights breaking out between prisoners.
For the families living in shadows in Bangkok, there is constant drain of hope as time goes by. The UNHCR is underfunded and understaffed to adequately process the enormous number of asylum seekers inside the country, and the Thai government is disinterested in accommodating them while they wait. Families interviewed for this piece had been waiting for as long as five years to see if they would be accepted as refugees. One Tamil man I spoke to inside of the IDC said he had been detained there for eight years after fleeing a very well publicized genocide.
In many cases those rejected seem to have gone through a long and exhausting process which seeks to first find reasons to deny them refugee status, rather than find the reasons they need protection. Even those who are accepted by the UNHCR have no promise of resettlement. Among the Pakistani asylum seekers, I interviewed two adult men—one Christian and another Hindu—who decided to return to Pakistan and risk further persecution. They had simply run out of time and run out of options and were forced to choose from living in one shadow where they might be murdered for who they are, and another where they might starve to death for who they are not.
Representatives from the UNHCR contacted for this piece declined to comment on the record. Thai Immigration officials were unavailable for comment.