Evidence sessions on religious minorities in Pakistan

On the 10th and 11th of November, the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief held evidence-hearing sessions regarding the persecution of minority groups in Pakistan and difficulties for their being granted asylum in light of UNHCR policy and Home Office Country Guidance.

The hearings took place in the Houses of Parliament and were attended by parliamentarians as well as a wide range of organisations working on religious freedom in Pakistan and witnesses hailing from different Pakistani religious minority groups.

Upon his visit to Bangkok’s UNHCR refugee camp, Lord Alton found that Pakistani Christians’ asylum claims were failing to be taken with adequate seriousness with the belief, using the Home Office February 2015 Country Guidance, that their situations in Pakistan do not put them at ‘a real risk of persecution’. Upon this finding, evidence hearing sessions in Parliament were called to understand the conditions for Christians and other religious groups in Pakistan and when seeking asylum.

The first day of hearings assessed whether religious minorities in Pakistan face discrimination or persecution. We heard several moving accounts of the treatment, which including torture and killing of family and friends faced by Christians, Shias, Ahmadis, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs, forcing many to flee the country. These testimonies corroborated our belief that some minorities in Pakistan are indeed at significant risk of persecution, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Evidence heard also demonstrated that the endemic persecution within Pakistan is not overtly deterred but is enabled by the State through constitutional measures and legislation such as the much maligned Blasphemy Laws. The alarming lack of condemnation of cases of persecution by government officials, combined with a weak judiciary and constabulary has resulted in a dire situation for minority religious groups in Pakistan, sometimes leaving no other alternative but to seek refuge.

The hearings also highlighted the difficulties minorities fleeing Pakistan have encountered when claiming asylum. These include issues surrounding a lack of understanding of the reality on the ground in Pakistan and a specific understanding of what speaking about one’s religious beliefs in Pakistan often entail as well as a worrying trend in interpreter and interviewer biases.

The Chair of the hearings, Lord Alton said: “The evidence with which we presented during these hearings held at Westminster revealed systematic and widespread persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. We heard harrowing personal accounts from Christians and Ahmadis and others who had watched loved ones murdered in a culture of impunity. We heard the story of Pakistan’s last remaining Jew and we were moved by the bravery and courage of other minority communities who face the same destiny of annihilation. Pakistan is Britain’s biggest recipient of overseas aid – more than £400 million this year alone – but it was impossible to see how our aid policy or our asylum policy have done anything to ease the desperate plight of Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities. We hope that the Report which will emerge from this evidence will force our policy makers, along with those of other Governments, to reassess the way in which we engage with Pakistan.”

Evidence collected at these hearings will be formally collated into a report containing recommendations which will subsequently be launched in Parliament and sent to relevant government bodies and parliamentarians, including members of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief in up to 60 countries. Particular recommendations will be provided to the Home Office officials who are in charge of setting country guidance and who attended the hearings as well as those who look at the options that asylum seekers are presented when having to present their story to interviewers. We hope that this report will help bring about tangible change in the UNHCR and the Home Office’s approach towards minorities facing persecution in Pakistan and their pursuit in seeking asylum.