Asylum seekers’ passport ban irks Pakistani Church, activists

The decision will leave Pakistanis officially homeless and stateless, activists say

Jun 13, 2024

Pakistani refugees are seen in a temporary room after being released on bail from detention in Thailand's capital Bangkok in this file image. (AFP)

ISLAMABAD:  Pakistan has banned issuing passports to citizens seeking asylum aboard, which Christian leaders and rights activists say is an unjust and unacceptable step.

In a communication, the Directorate General Immigration and Passports headquarters asked its offices to stop issuing passports to those seeking asylum or already living on asylum  “in the best national interest.”

The June 5 communication was marked as “confidential," but local media published it on June 11.

It said that the passports of individuals seeking asylum abroad would neither be canceled nor renewed, local media reports said.

The new policy is an "attempt to satisfy the concerns of the international community over recent attacks on religious minorities," said Bishop Samson Shukardin of Hyderabad, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan.

People who see asylum "leave the country and families behind. They do not do it happily. It is an effort to save their lives and look for a better future," he told UCA News on June 12.

The state also benefits from their foreign remittance, he said.

Shukardin added that the recent death of an elderly Christian man following a Muslim mob attack on allegations of blasphemy highlights the dangers many Christians aim to escape by fleeing aboard.

Instead of lopsided policies, the government "should enforce measures to protect religious minorities," he said.

Successive governments have also failed to reform the laws, such as the country's blasphemy laws that stipulate death sentences.

Rights groups say the laws have been exploited to target and attack religious minorities like Christians, leaving dozens of dead and houses, businesses, and worship places destroyed.

According to Father Inayat Bernard, the chaplain of the Catholic charity Caritas Pakistan, some 400 Christian families are languishing in Thailand for asylum, with a similar number facing hardships in Malaysia.

Bernard said that the government's move was "unjust."

“It is a new form of genocide. People flee to other countries when they feel insecure, persecuted, falsely accused of blasphemy and lose their business or jobs. The government move will now make them homeless and stateless,” he said. 

Faraz Pervaiz, a Christian activist who fled to Thailand after death threats from Muslims, urged Christian religious and political leaders to support victims of religious persecution.

“The Pakistan embassy in Bangkok has stopped renewing asylum seekers' passports since 2019. The government is punishing us for exercising our right to protect their lives,” he said.

“This move could potentially leave many Pakistanis stranded abroad without any travel documents,"  added.

Imtiaz Alam, secretary of the South Asian Free Media Association, termed the ban the “height of fascism.”

“It violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries,” he said.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Sri Lanka, the country is home to 311 Pakistani refugees and 180 asylum seekers, which include 215 members of Ahmadiyya Muslims and 30 Christians.

International rights groups have routinely slammed Pakistan for failing to ensure religious freedom and protect minorities from attacks from Islamic hardliners.

The US-based think tank Freedom House in 2023 placed Pakistan among the countries lacking religious freedom. However, the country scored only 37 out of 100 points in overall political rights and civil liberties.

More than 96 percent of Pakistan’s more than 241 million people follow Islam, 1.6 percent are Hindus, 1.6 percent are Christians, and less than one percent follow other faiths, including Sikhism and

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