Finding refuge in Thai churches

“Hi respected person.my name is A* my wife name is B*. We have one kid. We have been in Bangkok since three years. We apply asylum here. we are facing here many problem sometime we don’t have food to eat. The food which is given by one church that is really not enough for whole month we can not fulfill our needs. We really need your help we want some help from you we are persecuted Christian from Pakistan. Hope you will conceder our request and hope that you answer us soon.” — Names concealed for privacy but everything else is unedited.

The Christian organization that I volunteer at has been getting an increasing number of such pleas. No matter if you refer them to their local church or other relevant charities; they just keep on asking.

There’s been an unprecedented influx of Pakistani Christians in Thailand in the last few years. They even have their own Facebook page. Currently, Thailand has up to 10,000 Pakistani Christian asylum seekers, said Farrukh Saif Foundation, which provides assistance and support to Pakistani and South Asian Christian asylum seekers.

Many of them were forced to flee their homeland because of violence and persecution. Youngest-ever Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai gave a face and voice to what’s happening in Pakistan when she was shot in the head by the Taliban for going to school.

Life was basically hell for them in Pakistan so they flew to Thailand in the hope of applying to be a refugee and end up in the US someday. Except that Thailand has not ratified the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention regarding the status of asylum seekers and refugees, so they’re all considered illegal immigrants. (According to UNHCR an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.)

And you won’t want to be an illegal immigrant in Thailand. You can’t work while waiting for your story to be verified and that leaves you open to being netted by the police. I know how corrupt the Thai police, so I’m not surprised to hear stories of them extorting money from the asylum seekers.

Limbo in Thailand

Thailand seems to be a magnet for people fleeing their country, maybe because it’s relatively easy to get into Thailand. It seems that they just fly to Thailand as a tourist, and then make their way to UNHCR to try to get an asylum-seeking certificate. No wonder there is such a backlog.

Here are the official figures from the UNHCR (unofficial numbers on the ground seem to be much higher):

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.10.42 PM

A senior regional public officer of UNHCR, Vivian Tan, explained the situation. “In Thailand there are about 120,000 refugees in nine camps. Then there are about 1,000 Rohingyas. For the urban refugees we have to differentiate between asylum seekers and refugees. All asylum seekers seek refugee status but not all get that. We do individual refugee determination, which is also why it takes so long even after they get registered. It is a very intensive process. You get called in for first interview. Then it is a very in-depth process, where we find out as to why did the person leave his home country.

“We have to double check to make sure that the story is correct because sometimes we hear stories that are exactly the same but from different families. It is like that somebody is feeding them these stories. We need to be conscious in the whole screening to ensure that migrants do not come in the guise of refugees.”

And screening is not an easy job. If someone says, “I’m seeking asylum because I’m a Christian and I’m persecuted for my faith”, how do you discern if that’s the truth?

In some countries, the refugee panel board tries to discover if the asylum seekers are genuine Christians by asking them about their knowledge of the New Testament or church doctrine. But sometimes, even “genuine” Christians don’t know anything about the Bible. Questions could range from what’s the name of Jesus’ grandmother to the names of Jesus’ apostles. Or how do you gauge claimants who just say they’ve “found Jesus in my heart”?

Plus head knowledge can always be learnt. A fraud network for Chinese asylum seekers in New York coaches applicants who are not Christians on the tenets of the faith before their immigration interviews.

Pakistani Christians in Thai churches

Churches in Thailand have been feeding and sheltering strangers in their midst for many years. Local churches have been working with stateless people in the hill tribes as well as refugees from Myanmar while international churches were often a safe place for asylum-seekers from Africa.

My personal experience with these stateless people, Burmese refugees and African asylum-seekers has always been positive. They were stoic, willing to work hard, and more importantly, they were not always trying to tell you their sob story and asking you for money. Not so with the South Asian Christians I’ve met so far in church.

I go to a Baptist church in Bangkok and, bless them, they are really sweet and caring people who want to help anyone in need. About two years back, they took in a Pakistani Christian refugee, who’s since now made his way to the US. But it’s a small community, word got around, and now there are 15-20 Pakistanis in church.

The church welcomes them, makes them feel as at home as possible, and meet their needs as much as its stretched finances could. But here’s the context: Christianity makes up just 1% of the population in Thailand (and that includes both Protestants and Roman Catholics). So the majority of churches in Thailand do not have a lot of money. As for this Baptist church, it’s about 200 to 300-strong but there are another 10 daughter churches under its wing, and they all have outreach activities to the community. Basically, the pie is pretty much fixed but more fingers are dipping into it.

Despite the church’s generosity and goodwill to them, the Pakistanis still complain that it’s not enough. This is what riled me into writing this post.

As mentioned, I volunteer at a Christian organization and we held a conference at the church. One of the asylum seekers, let’s call him F, came to the conference and he very quickly attached himself to the regional director of the organization, unloading his whole sob story to him.

After the conference, F wrote a long email to the regional director, saying that no one is helping him and he doesn’t even have money to buy his daughter a Christmas present.

But that is not true, I know for a fact that the church does give him some financial help. And the church has been trying to come up with various odd jobs for the asylum seekers so that they can have some income, but only one of them took it up.

If I have nowhere to go and I’m relying on handouts, I’ll be grateful for everything that I receive. I probably wouldn’t be complaining to other people that the church is not giving me enough.

To put it bluntly, in a totally calculative way, the church has absolutely nothing to gain from helping the asylum seekers. There is negative ROI. Helping them will not bring the gospel to more Thais (in fact it eats into the budget). Helping them is not likely to strengthen the church. Eventually, when the asylum seekers get their papers, they fly off to a happy life in the US (most people in Thailand can only dream of having a better life in the US).

But the church continues to help them, kudos to them. Whenever there’s pork for lunch after the service, the church will even cook something else for the Pakistanis because they don’t eat pork. My first question was, they’re Christians, not Muslims nor Jews, so why can’t they eat pork?

Moreover, most of the Pakistanis don’t understand English. The worship service is in Thai, translated into English and Mandarin. I’m not sure how much they get from the sermon. And the follow-up question from that is, if faith is so important to them, why don’t they attend Urdu Church in Hands of God, a church that is not only close to where they stay but also in a language they can understand?

I’ve seen firsthand how they are very attuned to people who might be able to help them and latch onto them. So they keep going back to the same individuals to ask for money. Thais are not very good at saying no, so they end up giving. One Thai eventually got so annoyed that he stopped coming to church because he got tired of being a walking ATM.

I know that like in all things there are asylum seekers who are nice and some who are annoying. And I know this sounds totally uncharitable but some of them (the not-nice ones) remind me of the beggar children I met in Cambodia. Those children were very aggressive, demanding for money and kept on insisting and insisting that we gave them money. But if you make the mistake of giving them some money, the entire neighbourhood of children will descend upon you and it’ll be impossible to extricate yourself.

I like helping people, but I don’t like to be coerced into helping people, especially those who expect and assume that others have to help them. One Sunday after service, I was getting into my car to drive home when one of them walked to my car and was about to get into it while telling me where she stayed, fully expecting me to drive her home. I’ve never even spoken to her. It’s as though she just walked out to the carpark and went to whichever car was about to leave. Because I’m cold and heartless (and it was in the opposite direction), I said no. She refused to budge until I said no a few times.

And then I feel bad for being so calloused. And then I get angry at being made to feel bad.

The fact is, yes, the Pakistani Christians have sad stories to tell but they’re not the most heart-wrenching. What about the Rohingya who are sold as slaves? What about the stateless people who can’t even leave their village because they don’t have papers?

Eventually the Pakistanis will leave for greener pastures and their tough time in Bangkok will be a thing of the past. But for the Rohingya, Burmese refugees or the stateless people, life continues as an unending nightmare.

So forgive me if I feel no compunction to give in to your strident demands for money. I’d much rather give to the voiceless, the oppressed who truly need help.

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