No Escape For Traumatized Pakistani Refugees In Sri Lanka

Pakistan is ranked among the most dangerous countries in the world for religious minorities. Marginalized and persecuted for their faith, minorities such as Christians, flee to countries like Sri Lanka.

In the streets of Negombo, Sri Lanka
In the streets of Negombo, Sri Lanka
Naeem Sahoutara

NEGOMBO Young choir members sing hymns in Sri Lanka's southern city of Negombo. They are singing for strength and patience in difficult times. Unlike Sinhala or Tamil, the languages spoken on this island nation, they're singing in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

There are Christians who fled Pakistan to seek asylum in Sri Lanka. One woman, who asks that I don't use her name, tells me a story about being united in love but divided in faith.

A Muslim woman, she married a Christian man — a taboo in Pakistan. The decision outraged her family and even sparked calls to have her husband killed. In Pakistan, interfaith marriages are rare, and even rarer these days, with growing religious intolerance.

Fearing for their safety, the couple fled to Sri Lanka three years ago. Thousands of people from religious minorities in Pakistan – Christians, Shiites and Ahmadiyas – flee persecution and discrimination by the Sunni Muslim majority.

Militant groups linked to Taliban and Al-Qaeda have openly attacked their houses of worship, killing hundreds and injuring many more.

Inside a Roman Catholic church in Negombo — Photo: Ronald Saunders

It's why many people leave, seeking a better life elsewhere. They come to places like Negombo, which today looks like a mini-Pakistan, with hundreds of Pakistanis living here quietly, almost unnoticed. Most of them don't want to be identified.

Jessica William, 50, arrived here with her four children and two grandchildren in 2012. "My son worked as male nurse and he used to visit some Muslim patients in their homes," she told me. "One day, he was taking a patient to the doctor when they came under armed attack. My son was also shot. Later, he found out that those people had links with terrorists. He was so scared that he left the job and left the country. Those people started searching for my son and harassed the family. So, we also left our home," she recalled.

Colombo has enjoyed good diplomatic relations with Islamabad, which helped it end violence by Tamil militants, who were allegedly supported by India. But things dramatically changed two years ago when Sri Lankan authorities, fearing an influx of terrorists, stopped issuing visas on arrival to Pakistanis.

Some 100 migrants, mostly men, were forcibly sent back. Political observers say New Delhi was putting pressure on Colombo to counter the growing influence of Islamabad on the island nation. The move has left hundreds of asylum seekers stranded and scared.

The Negombo fish market — Photo: Pete Sadler

During my visit to the city, four Pakistani bishops attending the International Bishops Conference in Colombo met frustrated families.

The migrants pleaded the bishops to press America or European countries to take them in.

People like Jessica are angry and fed up. "We cannot work, whatever we can we do secretly because we have to pay thousands for rent. Let alone food and other things. We spend life in constant fear. I worked as head of a charity organization that helped and sheltered children with special needs. I used to clean and care for the children of others. But, today there is no one to protect my children," she said.

Sri Lanka might be an attractive place for tourists with its lush-green mountains and beautiful temples but the life of migrants is another story, she said.

"We have no access to the hospitals, schools or jobs. We are forced to secretly work to buy food and pay rent. I've one piece of advice for you son! Think of yourself before thinking of anyone else," she told me.

Following criticism from UN's refugee agency, the Sri Lankan government has stopped deportations. But the lengthy asylum process is still testing the patience of migrants from Pakistan.

Some have been here for 10 years. Their asylum requests denied, they are in hiding.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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