Bangkok and other urban areas in Thailand are home to some 8,000 refugees who have fled religious persecution in their home countries. But since the deadly shrine bombing in August, the government has been harassing and arresting illegal immigrants.
BANGKOK — Almost 8,000 asylum seekers, smuggled from countries such as Syria, Somalia and Pakistan, live in Bangkok and other urban centers in Thailand, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The kingdom has notably become a major destination for Christians leaving Pakistan to escape religious persecution in their homeland.
Unrecognized and stuck in limbo, asylum seekers are subject to harassment and arrests. But since August's Erawan Shrine bombing, authorities have intensified their crackdown on illegal immigrants, meaning the refugees are living in even more uncertainty and fear. Many Pakistanis flee their country looking for a better life, says 35-year-old asylum seeker Nadeem* — though they don't always find it.
For the past three years, Nadeem has spent his days in Bangkok, living in despair. "We are waiting for the UNHCR, and it is taking a very long time," he says. "Life is not easy here, in many ways. We don't have money, food or a job."
The process of seeking asylum through the UNHCR can take years. And because Thailand isn't a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the immigrants aren't officially recognized.
Nadeem says he fled Pakistan after his house was burned and his family was threatened because he worked for a Christian organization. Now he is in Thailand with his family, but he has spent most of his time hiding in an apartment in the outskirts of Bangkok. He says he wouldn't advise other Pakistanis come here.
Illegal and vulnerable, asylum seekers are subject to harassment or even arrested, Nadeem says. "I know we have many problems back home, but Thailand is not a place for us," he says. "Pakistanis should find another country."
Prakong Pongtech is a Thai volunteer who works with asylum seekers in the capital. She says that since the bombing of the shrine, which killed 20 people, the Thai authorities have been targeting illegal migrants like Nadeem and his family. "Three hundred people were arrested in a single day," she explains. "Others just fled and went into hiding, and they are extremely scared, even now."
She remembers the day when the Thai police raided Nadeem's apartment building, where almost 2,000 Pakistani asylum seekers were living. In the aftermath of the bombing, police conducted raids across the city, looking for foreigners believed to be behind the incident.
In Nadeem's building, hundreds were arrested and 70 are still in prison. On that day, says Prakong, many others escaped to a nearby house to hide out: "They fled and camped out in one small house for a week until we assured them that things were better and that they could go back to their rooms," she says.
When the military junta came into power last year, officials became more aggressive toward the illegal migrant community. Things worsened still after the Erawan bombing.
Natika, the owner the apartment building that was raided, inspects the empty rooms. "They've left," she says of one family. "They too have left. Same thing for them."
About 1,000 Pakistani asylum seekers have stayed in the building, but they are afraid to go out, fearing for their safety. Some even lock their doors and pretend that no one is home.
Ahmed, who is just 8, knows the situation all too well. He lives with his five siblings, parents and grandparents in a dingy apartment in Bangkok's outskirts. He says the apartment is the same size as their kitchen back home, in Pakistan. The family fled the country two years ago, and Ahmed hasn't been back to school since. He wants to return, but his parents won't allow it. They fear he might get arrested.
They won't even let him go outside to play: Only the bigger kids are allowed on the roof of the building, they say, and Ahmed is too small to run away from the police if they come.
The little boy says he can't remember much of Pakistan anymore, though he still recalls a song he learned there. As he passes the days in hiding, he has sung it so many times he'll probably never forget it.
*All names in this story have been changed to protect identities.