We believe that asylum seekers – because of their unique experiences – represent a special group of people that will be crucial to changing the world, and as such, for our own sakes it is in our best interest to prioritize helping them.
Indeed, one of the main activities of the Love Movement has been helping asylum seekers, particularly Pakistani Christian asylum seekers. Here’s a bit of history: this all started back in 2011 when we met Q. He had written an email to one of our personal work email addresses explaining his situation and his difficulties in Pakistan. I started corresponding with him, trying to find out the possibilities of him going to Mexico where I live but it didn’t look promising. In spite of my inability to offer any real options for Q, he still insisted I name his first child. At first I refused, but I finally accepted when I realized that my refusal would only make it easier for me to forget about Q. And if I named his first son then I would never forget him and I would have to help him, so I did.
Finally, Q was accused of blasphemy. He was working in a furniture factory and had his own working area where he and only other Christians worked. One day he arrived at his shop to discover pages of the Quran strewn across the floor. In Pakistan, blasphemy is against the law, and anyone caught abusing the Quran falls under the blasphemy law which can care a penalty of death. Q was given the choice to be taken to the police for blasphemy or accepting Islam at the hands of a group of armed men. Q did what most of us probably would do. He chose to escape the immediate physical danger by pretending to accept Islam, while planning to leave the country at the first opportunity. Which is what he did. He escaped to Bangkok, Thailand to seek asylum.
It was from there that we heard of what happened to Q and decided to get more involved. At the time, Thailand allowed Pakistan nationals to get a visa on arrival. I think it was only for 15 days, but that was all they needed to start the process of getting refugee status with the UN. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, handles the multi-step process toward the ultimate goal of resettlement to a safe country. That process is long, taking 5-8 years on average. The first step is to register with the UNHCR at their offices in Bangkok. Once they are in the system, they are given a biometric ID card identifying them as persons seeking asylum. This ID card, however, does little to help them with Thai authorities, who can arrest them and detain them indefinitely if their visas have expired. Given their circumstances, their lack of resources and the reluctance of the Thai government to grant them visas along with the costs involved, most of their visas do simply expire without being renewed. Thailand didn’t sign the 1951 UN Convention, nor the 1967 UN Protocol that deal with rights for refugees. Even states that have signed them often disregard their provisions. Such is the time we live in and the climate today as the world tries to deal with the many millions of refugees that exist today.
This means that while they go through the process, they are essentially at the same time being hunted as criminals, forced to hide from authorities or face indefinite detention. Thailand at times offered bail to immigration detainees, but that practice seems to have ended since the August 2015 Erawan Shrine bombing in Bangkok, a case which involved Chinese Uyghurs and foreigners in Thailand generally. The strategy since then appears to be to wage a sort of war of attrition – simply wear out detainees with indefinite detention which inevitably leads to some going back to Pakistan.. This turn of events means that the stakes are even higher for asylum seekers. Getting detained now leads to the worst of consequences.
In Q’s case, he was indeed caught up in the middle of these events. In October 2015, he was arrested for visa overstay and sent to the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok. Facing indefinite detention, he spent nearly 5 months there before we helped him return to Pakistan after his father became sick. Because of the dangers he faces, he is not able to lead a normal life living in the open. He has carefully chosen an area he feels he will not be discovered by his persecutors, and we support him each month, but we have not been able to according to the level he requires. We also promised to help get him back out of Pakistan but because of lack of resources we haven’t been able to keep that promise.
But that’s not all there is to Q’s story. He has grown spiritually by leaps and bounds. Developing his natural talents, in a few short weeks after returning to Pakistan he had 45 people interested in the Love Movement. For a short time we rented a hall for them until funds ran dry. Our hope for Q is to be able to develop the Love Movement organization to the point that he can work for it and regain some of his freedom.
In the meantime, we continued working with asylum seeking families in Bangkok and we have been seeing slow but sure progress. Three of the main families we help have been granted refugee status by the UNHCR, something that is quite difficult to get. Their next step is to be resettled to a third country. But resettlement is not guaranteed and generally takes some years if it does happen. But the good news is that all three families are committed to helping refugees if and when they get to a third country. This illustrates the great importance of helping these families now. To the degree that we are willing to help them now when they need it, they are willing to help when they finally make it to a stable situation. Each family that commits to paying forward what they received impacts a minimum of thousands of people and they greatly increase the stability of an increasing unstable and chaotic world. In short, our world needs these people, and those that have the foresight to help them may literally end up saving their own lives in the process because of the perspective they gain on life and the world around them that allows them to make choices that will forever benefit their futures.
This issue is not about feeling sorry for a few people and sending them a few bucks. It’s about all of us being able to survive by transitioning to a new way of life that is built on relationships, and those relationships in turn