CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 17 November 2018

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Fleeing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

BANGKOK (AsiaNews): “Large numbers of Pakistanis have been arriving in Thailand, fleeing their country’s blasphemy laws, which has deprived them of their land and assets,” Father Domenico Rodighiero, a missionary with the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and pastor of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Saphanmai, a northern suburb of Bangkok, said.

He added that over the past three years there has been a constant stream of them arriving in Thailand, but a few have been coming on and off for the past 10.

“Our parish has helped refugees and so we also started to take care of the latest arrivals,” he explained, saying that there are also Christian among them. “Some 4,000, both Protestant and Catholic. In addition, there is a large number of Ahmadi Muslims, who are also persecuted in Pakistan,” Father Rodighiero said.

Most refugees flee to Thailand hoping for resettlement in another south-eastern Asian country. However, they find themselves at a dead end, since Thailand does not afford them any rights, so that their only possible exit is back to Pakistan.

“When people arrive, they get a tourist visa at the airport for a month, or 20 days,” Father Rodighiero explained. “In some cases, they are renewed, but only rarely, because it is expensive and complicated.”

He added, “Thailand, and this is the most important thing, has not signed the 1951 United Nations (UN) Convention on Refugees. Thus, those who overstay their visas are not protected and can be locked up in detention centres or deported. This happens to both asylum seekers and refugees.”

In late 2014, the parish of St. Michael started to collect basic necessities for the thousands of refugees and its example was later taken up by the whole diocese.

“We started with essential things like food,” the Oblate missionary said. “We deal with everyone, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. Muslims are ashamed sometimes because they realise that the Christians emigrated because of Pakistani Muslims.”

Father Rodighiero explained, “All the refugees are divided into groups in some areas of Bangkok and live in rented rooms like families. I visit their homes and celebrate Mass for the Christians. Then I go to the detention centre where undocumented immigrants or those with expired visas are held.

“Except for a few cases, the police do not go after these people, because they know where they are and can monitor them,” he explained.

“Lately though, the centre has become overcrowded and inmates can get out if they opt for bail (usually about US$1,200—$9,300), but this depends on the mood of the police,” he said.

He described the thousands of refugees as living in limbo. “Because most have no chance of getting recognition as refugees by the UN.”

However, the situation is unrealistic, as the process by which the UN recognises refugee status can take years; years for the first interview and years for an answer.

“In the meantime, these people have no right to work. Some receive aid from their families at home, but after four or five years, they run out of resources and end up having to return,” Father Rodighiero explained.

He said that the Thai Church is generous and helps refugees find work, but sometimes they have to be helped to go home, especially if they get sick.

 

But the Church in Thailand is small and does not have a lot of resources. It is struggling to deal with such a big emergency.

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