The persecuted

Published July 7, 2014
The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

IF nothing else has made Pakistanis awake to their country’s serious predicament, perhaps this will: a country that has historically welcomed refugees — first migrants from northern India and subsequently those fleeing turmoil in Afghanistan — is now generating them. Thousands of Pakistanis have flooded into Afghanistan to escape the fallout of Operation Zarb-i-Azb, a fact being widely reported and remarked upon. What is less discussed is the steady flow of Pakistanis seeking asylum in Sri Lanka.

The issue of Pakistani refugees in Afghanistan is gaining attention not only because this is the first time cross-border migration has occurred in this direction but also because it has security implications on both sides of the border.

Are members of the TTP and Haqqani Network seeking sanctuary in Afghanistan, having travelled across the border alongside civilians fleeing the military operation? Are they armed and likely to further destabilise Afghanistan? Will their treatment at the hands of Afghan authorities exacerbate bilateral tensions? Unfortunately, these questions have trumped broader questions about the long-term ramifications of displacement caused by military operations. But at least these refugees are on the public’s radar.

The awareness about Pakistani asylum seekers in Sri Lanka seems to be lower. According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, 1,489 asylum seekers arrived in Sri Lanka from Pakistan in 2013, a dramatic increase from just 102 in 2012. Most are Christians and Ahmadis fleeing systemic persecution in Pakistan.


The issue of minorities continues to fester.


Last month, the Sri Lankan authorities arrested 142 Pakistanis and they are currently at risk of deportation, though international human rights groups have urged Sri Lanka not to return them to Pakistan where they will be further persecuted. This ongoing issue is why Sri Lanka recently suspended the visa-on-arrival for Pakistanis. It is also a reminder of how Pakistanis are being globally perceived: as unwanted sources of trouble.

The Pakistani response to this situation has been perverse. The Foreign Office has shown little sympathy for the asylum seekers by saying they gained asylum by “badmouthing Pakistan”. Similar contempt and denial on the part of the state was displayed when news of Hindu migrations to India began surfacing about two years ago, with various government officials suggesting the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. Others have grumbled about the cancellation of Sri Lanka’s convenient visa policy. What no one is asking is: why are those Pakistanis there in the first place?

The Sri Lanka episode is the latest reminder of how bleak the situation is for religious minorities in Pakistan. The watchdog organisation Minority Rights Group Inter­national (MRGI) has ranked Pakistan the world’s top country in terms of increases in threats to minorities since 2007.

Since the start of the year, there have been 27 reported incidents in which religious minorities’ temples or holy books have been desecrated. A recent report from Human Rights Watch records the killing of 450 Shia in 2012, and 400 in 2013 (Hazaras in Balochistan comprised one quarter of the victims in 2012 and half in 2013). A separate MRGI report cites higher statistics, saying 700 Shia were murdered in targeted attacks in 2013.

Meanwhile, Hindus are allegedly abducted and forcibly converted, forcing them to migrate to India each year to flee persecution (MRGI puts the number of annual migrants as high as 5,000). Christians are regularly targeted in brutal militant attacks and falsely accused of blasphemy. Ahmadis are also systematically targeted, de­­nied religious freedoms, and routinely accused of blasphemy.

The worse the situation gets, the less political will there seems to be to address it. Much of the persecution of religious minorities occurs in Punjab, the current seat of power, and also home base for the most brutal anti-Shia militant groups. Much has already been written about the links between PML-N politicians and sectarian groups. But the government is not the only guilty party.

Since Operation Zarb-i-Azb began, military spokespeople have been quite vocal about the commitment to root out anti-state terrorist groups, even previously condoned groups such as the Haqqani Network have apparently been blacklisted. But there has been no mention of groups that commit atrocities against religious minorities. In fact, these groups are instead being given greater space to operate in Balochistan and Sindh to counter rising nationalist sentiments.

The champions of democracy have been gearing up for a fight as the elected government faces pressure from the absurd machinations of other state institutions, Tahirul Qadri’s revolutionary rants and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s many marches. But we cannot protect something that doesn’t exist. And the plight of Pakistan’s minorities is clear proof that we’re still a long way off from a truly democratic state.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2014

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