A campaign by Thai authorities to crack down on human trafficking has led to the arrests this month of hundreds of foreign nationals in Bangkok. But the detainees include many Pakistani nationals seeking refuge, and rights groups are calling for their release.
In a statement to VOA, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees regional representative said as many as 150 refugees and asylum seekers had been arrested and held during the past 10 days. Pakistan-based media and some Christian groups say the number may be as many as several hundred.
Among those arrested were people fleeing religious persecution and sectarian violence in Pakistan.
The arrests are part of a general clampdown on illegal immigrants, said the deputy Asia director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson.
"As far as we can tell, this is part of a larger crackdown," Robertson said, adding that "persons of concern and refugees" have been swept up in the process. "
"People who have cases before the U.N., who are seeking protection, fear being sent back to their countries. These people are now in detention and the big problem is the government of Thailand does not recognize refugee documents," he said.
Human Rights Watch said Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and lacks laws concerning refugees or asylum procedures.
Difficult to make distinctions
Without a legal framework, there is no way of distinguishing between vulnerable people and illegal migrants or other individuals, the UNHCR said. It issues documents to asylum seekers and refugees in a bid to provide identification for Thai authorities.
A network of Christian groups and churches provide assistance and support to the Pakistan and South Asian Christian asylum seekers. Among them is the Farrukh Saif Foundation, which said the recent sweep netted Christian, and Muslim minority Ahmadiyyan followers who are the target of extremists in Pakistan.
The foundation said Thailand has up to 10,000 Pakistani Christian asylum seekers forced to flee their homeland because of violence and persecution.
The foundation said immigration police backed by the military raided houses of asylum seekers living in Bangkok’s outskirts, smashing down doors and arresting people, including women and minors. Many were begging authorities to recognize their U.N. documents. The foundation said the people’s pleas were ignored as they were taken into custody and loaded onto trucks.
Political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government adviser on security issues, said the crackdowns are part of tightened rules and regulations associated with concerns over human trafficking.
"The security agencies are now trying to make sure the human trafficking is under control," he said. "… So they are stepping up on these measures."
Many Pakistan Christians have fled persecution at home. On Sunday, bombs outside two churches in Lahore left more than 15 dead and wounded up to 100 in a largely Christian area of the capital. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan-affiliated Jamaatul Ahrar is said to have claimed responsibility.