Destination: Asylum abroad

Published May 16, 2015
The number of asylum seekers Pakistan has been producing since 2010 has risen phenomenally.—AFP/File
The number of asylum seekers Pakistan has been producing since 2010 has risen phenomenally.—AFP/File

The number of asylum seekers Pakistan has been producing since 2010 has risen phenomenally. But the government seems least interested in arresting the trend and is, intentionally or unintentionally, trying to obscure the factors compelling more and more Pakistanis to leave their country each year.

Responding to a question by Senator Muhammad Talha Mehmood in the upper house of parliament, the government on Tuesday shared with the Senate members only the number of Pakistanis who have sought asylum in Germany, the United States and Serbia during the last five years.

Also read: Australia offers Pakistani asylum-seekers $3k to return home: report

“The nature of asylum requests restricts the host government from sharing information. As such, the full information on such cases is not available,” the standard reply given to the senators on behalf of the minister of foreign affairs (who happens to be Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and posted on the Senate’s website stated.

Take a look: Asylum-seekers increase by 45pc worldwide

The reasons given in the answer for the increasing number of Pakistanis leaving the country of their birth are also quite sketchy. “Asylum is mostly sought claiming political persecution and denial of civil rights and liberties,” it says. It doesn’t acknowledge religious persecution and growing violence and attacks against non-Muslims and the Shias as a factor, forcing hundreds of families to flee the country for fear of life.

Know more: Asylum seekers’ plight

“It appears as if the government wants to conceal rather than reveal the true causes of this surging trend,” notes an immigration lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Its reluctance to dilate on the reasons is understandable as no government or country wants to be embarrassed publicly on such matters.”

The spike in the number of Pakistani asylum seekers is in line with the global trend, confirms a study — Asylum Trends 2014: Levels and Trends in Industrialised Countries — by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Globally, the number of asylum applications recorded in the 44 industrialised countries rose to an estimated 866,000 in 2014, up by 45 per cent from a year earlier. “This is the fourth consecutive annual increase and the second highest annual level since the early 1980s. As such, the 2014 figure is close to an all-time high of almost 900,000 asylum applications recorded in the 44 industrialised countries in 1992,” it says.

The UNHCR points out that Pakistan was the “sixth highest source country of asylum seekers in the industrialised world” in 2014 after Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia and Eritrea. Rather an unenviable position.

Some 26,300 Pakistanis had applied for asylum in 2014, the highest number ever recorded, up marginally by four per cent from 25,200 claims of the previous year. “Nevertheless, this is the fourth consecutive annual increase and follows an annual average of about 11,000 claims in 2009 and 2010,” according to the UNHCR.

The increase was particularly significant in Italy, where asylum levels more than doubled from 3,200 in 2013 to almost 7,100 a year later. Germany and the United Kingdom were the other important destination countries with 4,000 and 3,900 applications, respectively.

Little wonder then that Australia’s government had to place an advertisement in Pakistani newspapers, warning asylum seekers against entering that country illegally, and Sri Lanka suspending the facility of providing visit visas to Pakistani travellers at airport.

“Even UNHCR data on asylum seekers from Pakistan does not quite capture the true picture because the numbers given in it do not take into account Pakistanis fleeing to Sri Lanka and Thailand and other southeast Asian countries in recent years,” the lawyer explains.

Pakistan’s immigration officials in Lahore endorse him. “More asylum seekers are going to countries whose visa is easier to obtain. It holds especially true for middle-class non-Muslim and Shia families,” says an immigration official posted at Lahore airport on condition of anonymity.

Some analysts hold economic reasons responsible for the increasing number of Pakistanis running away from the country. “The global trend also underscores this fact. We see the surge in the number of asylum seekers ever since economies in the developing world started to slow down in 2008,” says Shahid Zia, an economic expert and financial analyst. “As job opportunities in an economy shrink, its people tend to leave for rich and developed countries dreaming of a better life. But it doesn’t mean other factors — religious, social, etc — aren’t working.”

Pakistan has seen a very large number of non-Muslims fleeing the country since 2009 because of religious persecution and growing violence against them.

“Vulnerable communities don’t feel safe in Pakistan because of rising religious militancy and active intolerance by certain religious groups. Do you think those who survived the Karachi bloodbath on Wednesday want to live in this country?” asks rights activist Peter Jacob.

It is difficult to tell how many Christians or other non-Muslims have left the country to seek asylum in other countries in recent years, but the immigration official says several hundred individuals and families from the Christian and Ahmadiya communities had fled to Sri Lanka and the Far East countries. “In countries such as Sri Lanka and Thailand, the UNHCR has developed infrastructure to house asylum seekers from Pakistan. Therefore, most Christians and Ahmadiya community members prefer to migrate there,” he says.

This phenomenon is not restricted to non-Muslims. “Even some sections of Muslim population such as Shias, especially Hazara Shias living in Quetta, do not feel safe in this country. Not everyone can leave the country, but you’ll hardly find any Hazara man wishing to stay in Pakistan,” adds the lawyer.

Jacob says in many cases religious persecution and economic factors merge to compel non-Muslims to migrate. “For example, I’ve heard that 40 Christian factory workers were fired by their employers after the recent suicide attack on a church in Youhanabad in Lahore. What option do these people have but to leave the country?” he asks.

Life for asylum seekers is not easy in the countries they take refuge in and where they face arrests and hunger; yet the fear for life in their own country makes them take the risk. “These difficulties matter little to those whose families are facing death threats in Pakistan,” says Jacob.    

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2015

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