Archive for febbraio 2015

In defence of minorities: Peter Jacob

In defence of minorities

Peter Jacob February 22, 2015

Before quitting the term ‘minority’, we ought to put alternative safeguards in place for the protection of rights of minorities

Among scores of lines immortalised by William Shakespeare is, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The lines gained proverbial importance attributable to an appeal to realism and simple symbolism used by the author. Many of us agree with his logic and do not give two hoots to change of names or identities.

Conversely, Faiz Ahmad Faiz used satire in one of his most popular Urdu poems to capture the politics of names and changes thereof. He says “Hum se kehtey hain chaman waley ghareeban-e-chaman, tum koe achcha sa rakh lo apney veeraney ka naam.”

During the Independence movement, Gandhiji named the marginalised sections of India, the Harijan (children of God) replacing the historical characterisation of Shudra, whom the British rulers classified as Scheduled Castes. The experience over a century showed that social discrimination was hard to eliminate merely by changing the identity until pervasive social and economic injustice and political inequality was addressed.

Ultimately the concerned communities in independent India chose to name themselves Dalits (the suppressed). Today the term Dalit is commonly used, though the constitution of India (Article 341) and other laws use the terms Scheduled caste and Scheduled tribes to introduce affirmative action.

While Gandhiji tried to elevate the status of these people by using a term which had a religious connotation, Shudra or the Untouchables was a social construction to maintain class based marginalisation. The term Scheduled Caste was a technical categorisation basically for official records such as the population census. Finally, Dalit is more of a realist choice to fight discrimination in the political arena. Each characterisation after the term Shudra helped create social space and alleviating the suffering of these people incrementally.
The emphasis on minorities in today’s political discourse in the country is due to an exaggerated emphasis on majority religion in the constitution, polity and public policies.

Similarly, the African-Americans were called by other names, considered derogatory, before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Hence growing social sensitivity in North America made it possible in the past few decades that those terms were replaced. Nevertheless, this was milestone of the continuing struggle against racial discrimination rather than a victory.

The educated Muslims in British ruled India, preferred to be called Mohammdans or Musalmans before they settled and are widely known as Muslims. In the official records of Pakistan, Muslim-Sheikh remains the caste identity of the Muslims who converted from a socially marginalised class.

The scholars, politicians and social activists in Pakistan are in search of a suitable term for the communities who do not subscribe to the majority religion. Ironically though, because these faith communities have been living here for generations and centuries, some of them also formed a majority religion at some point in history.

Whilst the constitution of Pakistan makes distinctions and preferences on the basis of religion and the term minority is a legal term, some despise the use of the term minority, thinking that it reinforces religious divide and inequality among the citizens. The objectors are concerned about religious extremism and intolerance that prevails and thus they would like to use inclusive and non-discriminatory terminology.

Keeping in view that a choice of an identity has been part of the movements for civil rights against discrimination in many societies. The objection therefore is a blessing, showing signs of life among us. However, the critical question is, which choice of terminology will serve the purpose of inculcating equality and acknowledging diversity among citizens better.

The term “non-Muslim citizens” has gained currency in this wake and the term “minorities” is under a criticism. An opposition leader announced a few weeks back that his party will do away with the word minority when it comes to power. The statement completely ignored the fact that the use of term non-Muslims has serious repercussions in concept as well as in practice.

The term non-Muslims tells what a host of religious identities (Hindus, Christians, Bahai’s, Sikhs, Ahamdis, Buddhists, Parsis, Jews) living in Pakistan are not, rather than explaining what they are. Thus the term falls short of a positive portrayal of one or more faith communities. Secondly the term itself divides and defines people using the majority religion as a standard therefore it cannot serve the purpose of respecting religious diversity or strengthening the pluralistic democracy.

On the other hand the term minority is universal, religiously and neutral. Moreover, it is widely used in the protective legislation throughout the world. The international treaty laws including the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights (1966), Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992) add important protections for minorities’ rights.

United Nations had a sub-commission on protection of minorities for about 60 years which played a pivotal role in framing and developing human rights norms. The UN has also appointed an independent expert on minorities’ issues since 2005. Therefore, before we resign the term minority, we ought to put alternative safeguards in place that have been devised over the decades for protection of rights of minorities.

The protection of rights of minorities being the raison d’être for creation of our country, we in Pakistan cannot undervalue the need for special protection and legal guarantees for religious minorities. It is another matter that besides religious minorities we need to expand this recognition to ethnic, linguistics, national and perhaps sectarian minorities in order to protect the entire spectrum of minorities or communities vulnerable to abuse of their human rights.

As far as religious minorities, we should not ignore that the emphasis on the minorities in today’s political discourse in the country, by default and design, is due to an exaggerated emphasis on majority religion in the constitution, polity and public policies. Therefore, we might have to address the cause first in order to treat the religious discrimination and social inequality.

The religious communities of smaller demographic representation have not reacted negatively to assimilative trends though that implied losing some of their cultural strengths. They are victims of identity crisis. The purpose of preserving religious diversity will necessitate recognising their individuality rather than bracketing them in a generic category with reference to the majority religion.

Till the time we march towards integration of all sections of society, “religious minorities” is not a bad term to use.

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Pakistani Christians have nowhere to go: ‘They will kill us’: Pakistani Christian family seeks asylum in Bangkok after escape

BANGKOK: They were a middle-class family in Pakistan, living in a comfortable three-bedroom apartment with a modern kitchen and a PlayStation for the three kids, reports The Associated Press.

Fluent in English, the father ran his own moving company while the mother taught art.

A death threat signed by an extremist group with three bullets attached compelled the Christian family to leave it all behind 18 months ago.

Now they live in a barren room in Bangkok, where the children share a double bed and the parents sleep on the floor. They cook on a propane burner on a tiny balcony.

A picture of Jesus, the source of their solace and their troubles, hangs on the inside of the door.

In this January 12, 2015, photo, an asylum-seeker sits on her bed in a one-room apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok,

This, increasingly, is the life of the asylum-seeker and refugee.

More than half the 14 million refugees and asylum-seekers under the mandate of the UN refugee agency do not live in the camps they are often associated with.

A growing number live in cities and towns around the world. Across Asia, from India to the Pacific islands, there are about half a million such “urban refugees,” according to the agency.

The Pakistani family no longer fears for their lives, but they face other fears like arrest, hunger and the possibility that they will never be able to live freely.

Unable to work legally and with no legal status in Thailand, they and others like them must remain mostly hidden while they scrape by on odd jobs and donations from churches, aid groups and individuals.

Their children, all elementary-school age, do not go to school and spend their entire day indoors.

“We just wanted to save our lives,” said the father, who has overstayed his visa and like the dozen other asylum-seekers interviewed for this story asked not to be identified for fear of arrest. “We didn’t know anything when we arrived. Now we are just trying to survive.”

Many asylum-seekers pin their hopes on an elusive prize: resettlement in a third country such as the US or Canada through a process overseen by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees.

That can take five years or more, and it often doesn’t happen at all.

The surge of urban refugees challenges reluctant host countries like Thailand, which in the past has allowed refugees from surrounding countries into border camps, but doesn’t legally recognise asylum-seekers or refugees.

It’s relatively easy to obtain a Thai tourist visa.

One reason is that the number of asylum-seekers in Bangkok has jumped several-fold to more than 8,000 over the past few years, according to numbers from the UNHCR.

The biggest and fastest-growing contingent here is from Pakistan, experts say, while other big groups come from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Somalia and Syria.

When they land, many are shocked to discover they face arrest once their visas run out.

They expect the UNHCR will protect them, but refugee advocates say Thai police generally ignore UN letters declaring them to be “persons of concern.”

Thailand never signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that protects refugees’ rights; neither have neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, where thousands more asylum-seekers live.

So these urban refugees scrape by in limbo, freer than those in camp settings but in some ways more vulnerable.

“This is the future,” said Mireille Girard, the Thailand representative for the UNHCR. “We really have to adjust to providing assistance in urban environments.“

Despite the hardships, many say they will never return home. They are too afraid. “We’ll just face the same sort of threats again,” said the mother. “I’m not willing to sacrifice my children for that. “

‘We will shoot you and your children’

In Pakistan, the couple and some Catholic friends helped run a small, free school for poor children.

One morning in 2013, a warning signed by an militant group was slipped under the door of the school office.

“Stop giving missionary education to Muslim children. Otherwise, we will shoot you and your children,” said the threat, which was viewed by The Associated Press.

Ten days later, the school received another warning, only this time it was with bullets.

The school volunteers filed a complaint to the police; the AP viewed a copy of the document, which had been stamped by local police to indicate they had received it.

The couple’s account was corroborated by several people contacted by the AP. The couple said the school never taught Christianity to Muslim children, but did teach Bible stories and prayers to the Christian kids when their Muslim classmates were not there.

They said that sometimes the Muslim kids would hang around, hear the prayers and recite them at home. Pakistan’s religious minorities are increasingly persecuted – not only Christians but Hindus and Ahmadis.

They say that although no one has been executed under the country’s harsh blasphemy law, it has been used to threaten non-Muslims and incite mob violence. In November, a Christian couple was killed by a mob for allegedly desecrating the Quran.

An estimated 12,000 religious minorities have fled Pakistan since 2009, according to Farrukh Saif, who heads a minority advocacy group that supports asylum-seekers in Bangkok.

The threatened couple fled to Thailand because friends said it was easy to get a tourist visa and because other Christians had gone there.

“People told us, ‘Save your lives first, then worry about the other things, “’ the father said. After hiding for a month, they packed two suitcases of their belongings and boarded a midnight flight for Bangkok. When they arrived in the steamy Thai capital, relief quickly turned to anxiety.

The food, the language – everything was new.

The father went to the UNHCR to register as an asylum-seeker and was shocked to learn he would have to wait two years – until September 2015 – just to get his first interview in the “refugee status determination” process.

Now, for new arrivals, the wait is three years.

The UN agency has more than 60 staffers in Bangkok working to verify thousands of asylum-seekers’ stories and determine whether they are refugees with well-founded fears of persecution, said the UNHCR’s Girard.

Each case must be examined to screen out those trying to exploit the system, such as those being trafficked by smuggling rings.

“We have to be very strict in recognising who is a genuine refugee and who is not,” she said. For those waiting, money quickly becomes an issue.

After exhausting their savings, the Pakistani family visited churches for support. Most turned them down.

Eventually, one congregation offered about $100 a month. The mother found a job teaching English to Thai children.

She earns $250 a month, enough to cover rent, utilities and a bit of food.

The father, jobless for many months, recently found work at a nursery, but that means their three children are alone in the apartment all day. And now both parents could be arrested for working illegally.

“When I go to work, I don’t know if I’m going to come back to my kids or not,” said the father.

Those arrested typically wind up in the Immigration Detention Center. The only way out is paying for your own flight home or finally gaining resettlement overseas.

Some stay in detention for years. Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director for the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation, said the Thai government fears that recognising asylum-seekers and refugees would draw more of them.

He said Thailand’s location and ease of access will draw desperate people anyway, and reforms are needed to address that reality.

Government ministries have had informal discussions about legislation that would protect asylum-seekers and refugees for one year, without granting the right to work, Veerawit said.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the permanent secretary at Thailand’s Foreign Ministry, said the proposal merits a serious look, but is not in the pipeline for formal consideration.

The first interview with the UN can be traumatic.

People are asked to provide evidence of persecution. Some break down in tears or can’t express themselves clearly, said Medhapan Sundaradeja, the Thailand director for Asylum Access, a nonprofit group that gives asylum-seekers free advice.

Decisions can take months. Inconsistencies can lead to cases getting rejected, though asylum-seekers can appeal.

Files of people recognised as refugees are then sent to potential host countries to be considered for resettlement, a process that typically takes another 12 to 18 months.

But of the roughly 860,000 most vulnerable refugees worldwide believed to need resettlement in 2013, only 80,000 spaces were available.

The US accounted for about 70 per cent of those.

The Pakistani father says they have no choice but to wait.

He has no doubt what extremists will do if he returns: “I know they will kill both of us, my wife and me, and they won’t spare my children.“

So he waits and dreams of a life where they don’t need to hide and where his children can freely attend school. “We just want to go where our lives are safe,” he says with a sigh, “and we have some freedom.”

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