Bangkok, Feb. 4, 2019: Mick Kelly remembers the phone call from his friend in Pakistan as if it was yesterday.
“He asked me to help out this one guy who was fleeing Pakistan, and on his way to Bangkok. That was more than five years ago,” Kelly recalls.
That friend – like Mick, a Jesuit priest – was asking for the Sydney-born Kelly to give a Pakistani Christian and would-be refugee help when he arrived in Thailand’s sprawling, unfamiliar capital.
“It all started by accident and has grown from there.”
Kelly, a journalist by training and founder of the Melbourne-based Eureka Street magazine, had moved to Bangkok in 2009 to run UCAN, the Union of Catholic Asian News.
Ten years later, he is still in Bangkok and at the helm of UCAN, which has about 45 journalists in countries throughout the region.
But it’s his “accidental” job, helping the small community of Pakistani Christian and Achmadi refugees (“it’s about 400 families”) trapped in a legal limbo in Bangkok, that he wants to talk about.
The families come to Xavier Hall – just a short walk from Bangkok’s Victory Monument that commemorates Thailand’s defeat of France in a series of skirmishes in 1941 – for food, for money, for education, for informal legal advice and – not least – spiritual counsel. The operation runs on the smell of an oily rag, funded by donations.
The UN refugee agency officially estimates there are around 97,000 recognised refugee living in Thailand. Most are ethnic minorities from Myanmar. But there are tens of thousands more undocumented people.
The tiny cohort of Pakistani Christians and Achmadis, most of whom fled between 2012 and 2014 when tourist visas were readily available, is just one drop in a vast ocean.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age spent a day with Kelly, meeting some of the families at Xavier Hall and travelling to their tiny flats on the outskirts of the capital.
Unable to work legally, they live jammed into one room flats that cost between 3000 and 5000 Thai Baht per month ($130-$220), fretting away their days inside, afraid to go out lest they be arrested and sent to Bangkok’s notorious Immigration Detention Centre.
One man shared a harrowing story of how his wife had been raped, five days earlier, by Thai police. They did not want their names published, and were afraid that if they went to authorities they would invite further legal problems upon themselves. The wife sobbed, shoulders shaking.
Another woman, Soniazahid Younis, spoke though she was afraid of Thai authorities, who have held her husband Zahid in the IDC for more than a year.
She came to Xavier Hall with her four sons, Shahzaib, 16, Shahwaiz, 14, Sharaiz, 10 and Zohaib, 8, to share her story.
One day, Soniazahid says, her eldest son translating, some men came to their house, in a small village outside Lahore, and demanded that they be allowed to pray inside the house. The men were Muslims, and the Younis family is Christian.
“After that, the trouble started. They said we had converted. They said my husband’s name was now Mohammed. But we are Christians. So they submitted a report of blasphemy. We were accused of desecrating the Koran” she says.
One day 40 or 50 men surrounded their home.
“They tried to choke me. They cut my husband’s hand. They threatened to cut off his head,” she says.
“First my husband went to Dubai, but we didn’t have money for Dubai visas. So a pastor helped us, he said he had friends in Thailand. So we came here.”
That was nearly six years ago. Since then, the family has lived in hiding and been unable to work. They get by on donations from Kelly and his community, and on remittances from Soniazahid’s elderly father.
In January 2018, the older members of the family were thrown into the IDC, Soniazahid in the women’s section of the prison, her husband and two older boys in the men’s section. Her 10- and eight-year-old boys were cared for by friends.
It was only in December 2018 that a mystery benefactor paid their fines and Soniazahid and her older boys were allowed out. Her husband remains in detention.
“All we want is a better place to live, where my kids can study, where we can get a job and a house. We can never go back to Pakistan,” she says.
Where does she want her family to go? Perhaps Australia, or Canada?
“The country which God has blessed for us,” Soniazahid replies.
Later, Simon Sultan, a 12 year old boy from Pakistan, invites us in to his home. He is sitting on the double bed he shares with his mother, 11-year-old sister and four-year-old younger brother. Their flat is perhaps 20 metres square, ancient, the yellow paint on the walls fading, but everything is neatly arranged in the tiny space.
It’s 3 o’clock on a hot January afternoon and the fan is shuddering and squeaking overhead.
Simon’s mother, Rifaffat, doesn’t want to be photographed but she wants the world to know her story.
“It was August 17, 2013, at around 10.30 am. That’s when my husband would open his shop. He fixed motorbikes. Another man, Amjad Ali, he was jealous. So he came to the shop and he took the Koran and he ripped it. And then he told other Muslims that my husband had ripped it,” she explains, her son Simon helping with the translation.
“After 10 or 15 minutes he came back with other men and that’s when they tried to kill my husband. So we fled to Thailand.”
“They hit him with screwdrivers and other mechanical parts, they threw food at him and spat on him. When my father ran, they tried to shoot him. But he jumped over a wall behind our shop, so the bullets hit the wall,” Simon adds.
Rifaffat’s husband, Justin, has been in the IDC for more than a year. One day, he went out to buy milk for their youngest son and was picked up by Thai police. Rifaffat makes money by baking naan bread for a rich Indian family, which helps them scrape by, and sends food to her husband in the prison each day via a neighbour.
“When we came from Pakistan we thought we would go to a third country after one year. But we can’t go anywhere,” she says.
As the Sultans’ share their story, Kelly nods, grim-faced. He’s heard hundreds of stories like this.
Working with these families, he later says, “has been a continuous experience of helplessness as I share the life of people who have no options and who are struggling to find the best way out of a very dark corner”.
“They are escaping persecution and when they get to Bangkok they are punished. They are routinely harassed by police,” he says.
He’s working on a plan to get some of the families asylum in a European country which he won’t name but his frustration is plain.
“I want Australia to take some of these people and help them. They fulfil all the criteria. They are fluent in English, many are tertiary-educated and they have refugee status. But they can’t get to Australia because for some reason Immigration has decided Pakistanis in Thailand are just not a priority.”
(www.smh.com.au – James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions.)