Over 100 Christian asylum seekers fleeing persecution from their native Pakistan were arrested in an immigration raid in Bangkok, Thailand.
A community of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers living in a low-rent condominium facility in the nation's capital found themselves in the middle of the Thailand government's ongoing immigration crackdown on Tuesday morning.
The Rev. Tim Eady, who pastors the only English-speaking Church of England congregation in Bangkok, told The Christian Post that as many as 80 Pakistani Christian asylum-seeking adults were arrested in the raid on the blockwide complex. At least 30 children were also detained in the raid.
"We are all devastated," the Christ Church pastor explained in an email. "Many asylum seekers have become close friends of other church members. We fear for them."
Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of a London-based charity assisting the asylum seekers called British Pakistani Christian Association, told CP that many of those arrested in the raid fled Pakistan after being persecuted or harassed over their faith. Some of them, he added, have even been accused of blasphemy, which is a crime punishable by death in Pakistan.
"The building itself belonged to a government official," Chowdhry explained. "A lot of the Pakistani Christians decided to move there because they thought it was under some form of protection."
But when the raid began, there was "no way out" for most of the asylum seekers who tried to flee from authorities because dozens vehicles completely blockaded the apartment complex.
Those detained in the raid are being held in Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center.
"The IDC has limited space. When it is full, they stop doing the arrests," Chowdhry said. "They treat these people so badly that after two to three years, many start thinking that they don't want to stay in the IDC. Many of them start to filter away. Many of them think if they are going to have indefinite imprisonment here, they might as well go back to Pakistan and try their chances. They have a choice of having indefinite imprisonment in Thailand or the potential for indefinite imprisonment in Pakistan or the ability to hopefully live under the radar."
Renting out a flat in the same apartment complex that was raided on Tuesday, the BPCA runs an unregistered two-classroom school to provide the asylum seeking children (ages 5 to 16) with at least some form of education. However, the school was also raided by authorities.
According to Chowdhry, eight computers were stolen from the school.
Chowdhry, who says that the number of children arrested in the raid is closer to 40, explained that about 30 of those children arrested attended the BPCA school.
One of the school's teachers, Mona Sumbal, managed to survive the raid because she hid in a boiler room.
"I had not even woken up when I heard shouts and screams as people began to warn others to escape," she said in a statement. "Our community is protective of one another and for many, the first thought was help others slip the arrest that would place them into brutal incarceration in Bangkok IDC."
"I heard the children I teach weeping and my heart was broken," she continued. "I wanted to help but knew that if I came out of hiding I would be arrested too and the end result would be a return to Pakistan where my life is at threat."
Sumbal waited an hour to come out only to discover that the school had been "destroyed."
"[N]o one was around from the community everyone was arrested," Sumbal explained. "About 20 minutes later, my cousin appeared. She is only 18. Now from such a large community, only the two of us remain free."
According to BPCA, those arrested during the raids also included United Nations registered refugees and retirement visa holders.
The raid on the apartment complex was followed by other raids in the city.
According to UCA News, five other Pakistani Christian families were rounded up during a raid in Bangkok's outlying district of Min Buri. At least 20 people were detained in that raid.
Eady explains that many asylum seekers come to Thailand from Pakistan, Africa or surrounding Asian countries on tourist visas that he says are "easy to obtain upon entry." He warns that what many asylum seekers might not realize is that they are fleeing violence or persecution and coming to a country that has not agreed to the U.N. Convention on Human Rights.
"They become illegal within a few weeks of arrival; where Thai law does not permit them to work or earn any income; where they have to live 'under the radar' and stand little chance of a quick exit, with the constant threat of arrest and internment in the Immigration Detention Centre — a fate worse than prison," Eady wrote in a detailed statement.
Christ Church has a team of volunteers who visit with the detained asylum seekers at the IDC. According to Eady, these once-per-week visits are likely the only time that detained asylum seekers who are married are able to see their spouses.
"The one good thing about visiting is that team members can 'call out' a husband and wife at the same time, and so enable them to see each other," Eady shared. "[It's] probably the only time in the week that they can do so, and even then it is only within the large throng of hundreds of people, for half an hour a week."
Eady told CP that Christ Church, which is home to five different congregations, offers asylum seekers the opportunity to worship. With the help of the BPCA, the church also hosts Thai classes for asylum seekers.
"Many refugees, looking for a 'third' country to accept them, can expect a stay of at least 10 years, some may never be able to leave this city," Eady added.
Eady explained that many of the refugees he meets are also "well educated."
"They have skills and aspirations. They would be an asset to any community. But they have fled for their lives," he said. "Sadly, I meet young people who should be at university completing degrees and doctorates living in fear for their survival, not sure where even the next meal will come from."
Many asylum seekers in Bangkok make ends meet through black market employment.
"How do I answer a 19-year-old girl when I ask her why she has come here?" Eady asked. "Surely she would be better off in the land that she calls home? At least there she would speak the language and have a hope for employment. Then she tells me, 'If I go back to Pakistan my Muslim uncles will either rape me or murder me, or probably both.'"
Pakistan ranks as the fifth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's World Watch List.
Christ Church is also working with an organization called LifeRaft, a Christian charity that works with local churches to support urban refugees.
"LifeRaft asks refugees to register with them, and to complete a monthly financial statement, and to demonstrate that they are seeking to use their time profitably, by working with a local 'advocate' within the church, and engaging in some form of learning or social activity," Eady detailed. "This may involve taking part in language learning, a Bible study group, or service within the church or community, or some form of 'online' learning. The intention is to encourage the asylum-seeker to move his mindset away from one of dependence to seeking to discover some form of useful purpose within their daily lives."
BPCA is attempting to raise $9,247 (£7,000) to pay the fines for each of the Pakistani Christian adult asylum seekers arrested for overstaying their visas. A fee of $132 (£100) per person keeps families from being held in cells with rapists and murderers.
"It is to prevent them from going into central jail," Chowdhry said. "It is very brutal."
Last week, 319 people were arrested in earlier immigration raids that targeted several locations across Thailand. Many of those arrested for overstaying their visas were from Myanmar, India, Laos and Vietnam.