In search of a home

Rana TanveerDialogue December 5, 2021

Ahmadi refugees from Pakistan continue to experience a host of problems in trying to settle in other countries

Damir Sagolj. Courtesy: Reuters
Damir Sagolj. Courtesy: Reuters

“Helplessness”, “hopelessness”, “exploitation”, “bleak future”, “insult to humanity” are just some of the words and phrases used by the Ahmadi asylum-seekers and refugees to describe their situation. Some of them have been languishing in Malaysia and Thailand for more than ten years. All these asylum seekers are waiting for resettlement in developed countries.

Although they consider the political leaders a part of their problems, most of them find the officialdom more to blame for their sufferings. They accuse local office-bearers of their organisations as well as the bureaucrats of not foreseeing the problems they are likely to faced in their settlement process, turning a blind eye to their exploitation, blackmailing, extortion, deliberately ignoring them and leaving them in the lurch. The allege that these office-bearers misrepresent the realities of Ahmadi refugees in their briefings to the United Nations refugee agency and try to portray them as financially stable people. As a result, the agency doesn’t sponsor them.

This scribe contacted more than one hundred Ahmadis in Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Canada and Pakistan during the last five weeks. A majority hung up on learning that it was a journalist who wanted to talk to them. Some others politely expressed their reservations saying that they could not talk to the press without permission from their leaders. However, some of them, shared details of their sufferings with repeated requests not to disclose their names. They said being identified as a complainant could land them into more trouble in the Jamaat.

Apart from the constant lack of opportunities in every field, lack of religious freedom and a persisting fear of persecution, the May 2010 attacks on two Ahmadi places of worship in Lahore, which left more than 80 worshippers dead, were the major push-factor for Ahmadis from Pakistan to leave the country. Hundreds moved to Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand to seek asylum at the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Currently, there are around 10,000 Ahmadi refugees/ asylum seekers in Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Liberia, Jordan and Turkey, among other countries.

In the days after the Easter Sunday bombing on April 21, 2019, which killed 267 people and injured 500 others in Sri Lanka, armed mobs mounted reprisal attacks on refugees and asylum-seekers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Cases of many Ahmadis were processed speedily by the UNHCR and they were resettled in various developed countries. Now there are almost 50 Ahmadis in Sri Lanka awaiting the settlement process to be completed. A family of four from Chakwal arrived two weeks ago and filed an asylum application. Out of the 50, only five have been in Sri Lanka since before the Lahore attacks, three are waiting for a decision on their appeals, one is waiting for a sponsorshipand one is waiting for Jamaat-i-Ahmadiyya’s verification of his affiliation before a final decision on his asylum application.

In Thailand, there are 1,050 Ahmadi refugees/ asylum seekers. Among them there are five families that have been there since 2012. Two others arrived in January this year. Encountering unexpected suffering and hardships, more than 30 have already gone back to Pakistan preferring to live in fear of persecution in the country over facing new hardships as refugees. More than 12, including a 12-year-old girl, have died due to a lack of medical facilities. More than 40 Ahmadi refugees are in jail and cannot afford bail which costs 50,000 baht (Rs 260,880). Suffering from depression, one of the refugees jumped from the third floor of his residential building last month.

The situation of Ahmadi refugees/ asylum seekers is the worst in Malaysia where there are 6,000 of them. More than half of them have been there for nine years or longer. Almost 50 have died. Ten of these casualties were because of Covid. Access to medical facilities remains a challenge. A teenager has developed mental illness due to not being able to continue his education. Two refugees have faced blasphemy charges in Malaysia at different points in time: one has gone missing while the other has had to return to Pakistan.

The three countries do not allow the refugees to work even to make ends meet. Therefore, they have to work illegally with construction companies, at hotels and small businesses set up by Indians and Bangladeshis. It is a routine for some employers to not pay their wages for up to a whole month. Some employers take advantage of their situation and don’t pay wages at all.

A majority of the Ahmadis who have got refugee status from the UNHCR are expecting Humanity First, an Ahmadi non-profit organisation, to help them meet their daily needs and to sponsor them to settle in Canada as it is a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH), a programme of the government of Canada for refugee settlement. Under this programme, the SAHs are allocated a quota for sponsorship with the guarantee to support the sponsored refugee(s) for 12 months after their arrival in Canada or until they become self-sufficient. The estimated cost per refugee mentioned on HF’s website is Canadian Dollars 20,000 and CAD 5,000 for each additional family member. Under the rules, the SAHs should not accept funds from refugee(s) at any stage.

During the last five weeks this scribe contacted more than one hundred Ahmadis in Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Canada and Pakistan. A majority hung up on learning that it was a journalist who wanted to talk to them

Toufiq Ahmed* tells The News on Sunday (TNS) that he has been living with his family in Malaysia for seven years, waiting for resettlement. He says the HF is asking to arrange their sponsorships while the headquarters of the Jamaat-i-Ahmadiyya is saying that they are only sponsoring families of Ahmadis killed for their faith.

“Should we go back to Pakistan and get some of us killed to qualify for the Jamaat’s sponsorship?” he said. “Two of my children have died. We do not have any relative in Canada or money to arrange another sponsor. Whoever in Jamaat or the HF I have asked for help, has said they can’t do anything”, says Amatul Naseer*. She says that sometimes she has the feeling that life as a refugee is worse than living in fear of persecution. Like every other Ahmadi refugee, they had hoped while leaving Pakistan that the Jamaat will make the process of asylum smooth for them. Instead of helping, regardless of the financial circumstances of the refugees, the Jamaat office bearers focus instead, they allege, on collecting chanda (financial contribution mandatory for every Ahmadi on regular basis). According to Canadian sponsorship rules, “privately sponsored refugees will not be required to take membership in, make donations, volunteer for or participate in activities, meetings or functions associated with the sponsoring groups”.

Muhammad Amir*, a refugee in Thailand, tells TNS that every other day messages asking refugees to arrange money for resettlement are circulated in WhatsApp groups administered by dlocal Jamaat office bearers. He says some of the aggrieved refugees have sent complaints to the community head in the UK, the Canadian prime minister, immigration minister and Canadian visa office in Thailand under fictitious names. He says those who criticise the exploitation, are given strict warnings or excommunicated by the Jamaat leadership. He says that one Sabahuddin has been expelled for openly speaking against the “discriminatory and unfair” behaviour of the office-bearers. He says some refugees in their final resettlement interviews at the visa office had disclosed that they had paid money to arrange their sponsorships. He says Afaf Azhar, an ex-Ahmadi based in Canada, got a warning from the Jamaat higher-ups for raising her voice for refugees.

Contacted by TNS, Afaf Azhar confirmed that she was issued a notice of ta’zeer (punishment) by the Canada Jamaat for criticising the HF for distributing food items that had expired eight years ago among refugees in Malaysia. She says that refugee girls were being sexually exploited, children were not going to schools, they were not being helped in any way but whoever within the Jamaat spoke about them got a warning. She says that she has sent a legal notice to Jamaat’s Canadian leadership under defamation charges for issuing her a warning. She says she is trying in her personal capacity to help the refugees with food items and other essentials. Jamaat representatives, she alleges, become active whenever they learn that volunteers organised by her are helping the needy refugees.

Ahsan Ahmed*, a refugee in Malaysia, tells TNS that the local Ahmadis are exploiting refugee girls and getting those expelled from Jamaat who highlight these issues within the Jamaat. He says that Faizan Ahmad, a local leader and Malaysian passport holder, last year not only extended life threats to a refugee but also managed his expulsion from the Jamaat for making complaints against him for sexual exploitation of refugee girls.

When contacted by TNS, Faizan Ahmed said he was a liberal person and went to a Church as well as to Ahmadi mosques. He termed all allegations against him and the Jamaat baseless. He said only about five percent of the refugees spoke out of jealousy for not being sponsored by the Jamaat out of turn. He says that in 2016, 900 Ahmadi families arrived in Malaysia to claim asylum but during their asylum interviews, most of them said they had come to find better jobs and business opportunities. These interviews made Ahmadi asylums suspicious and the UNHCR stopped receiving asylum applications from Pakistan in 2017. About 1,000 Ahmadi asylees/ refugees have since gone back to Pakistan.

According to Faizan Ahmed, it is not the Jamaat who asks Ahmadis to seek asylum. It is some travel agents who advise them and paint a rosy picture of their prospects.

Some of the refugees have started raising this issue on social media using fake identities. This has alerted the HF leadership. The HF leaders have since tried to take such people into confidence and held two Zoom conferences with refugees in May this year. The second conference, held on May 16, was presided over by Humanity First Chairman Dr Aslam Daud. Some of the participants accused HF officials of fleecing money in the chat-box as microphones and cameras of all participants were disabled. The chat room of the conference, which continued for about two and half hours, was overwhelmed with questions accusing the HF leadership of minting money and favouritism. After an hour and a half, Dr Aslam disabled the chat saying that he was seeing 460 questions and he could hardly answer all those by the end of the conference. Some of the questions were: “Does Humanity First sponsor anyone without taking money?”, “Would the refugees get full money they had paid for their sponsorship?”, “Is this meeting meant to contact the wealthy who can pay for sponsorship?”, “You people only talk, you are dual faced”, “You don’t take money directly from refugees, but you take it through their relatives whom refugees pay by taking loans”.

While answering the questions, Dr Aslam categorically and repeatedly said that the HF could sponsor only 80 percent of its quota to those referred by the head office in Chenab Nagar. The remaining twenty percent were referred to relatives in Canada who bore their expenses. For those refugees who have no relatives in Canada, Aslam said, “There are prayers of Huzoor-i-Anwar (title of the Ahmadiyya community head) for you. You should be happy for that.”

Dr Aslam tells TNS that there are around 10,000 Ahmadi refugees in various countries. The HF cannot sponsor all of them due to quota limitations as well as financial constraints. He adds that the HF does not get any government grants. He says that last year they had a quota to sponsor 50 refugees.

“We have a very long waiting list and everyone cannot be helped immediately.” He says he is aware of their sufferings, of the fact that as some of them have died, they cannot work, are living in miserable conditions without healthcare and education facilities. Resettlement of all refugees is “possible if the government removes the quota restrictions, and we have enough sponsors in Canada willing to fund the sponsorship costs”, Aslam says. He says the HF is very strict about ascertaining that money for sponsorship does not come from the refugees, directly or indirectly.

There is another programme for Canadian sponsorship called Group of 5. Under this programme, any five Canadian nationals or permanent residents can sponsor a family by guaranteeing to pay their living expenses for one year. Some refugees try to convince their relatives in Canada to sponsor them by holding out the assurance of paying their money back post-arrival Canada.

The writer is based in Canada. He has studied religion,cCulture and global justice. He can be reached @RanaTanver


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