Home Office guidance on Pakistan has ‘serious flaws’, say MPs

26 February 2016

PA

Limbo: A Pakistani asylum-seeker on the outskirts of Bangkok

Limbo: A Pakistani asylum-seeker on the outskirts of Bangkok

GUIDANCE produced by the Home Office on Christians in Pakistan does not adequately reflect the real risk of persecution in the country, and is being used to justify deportation, even when this puts lives at risk, a new report warns.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief has concluded that Christians in Pakistan are at “real risk of persecution in the form of physical violence and psychological torture at the hands of State and non-State actors”. It says that it has "deep concerns" about the Home Office's guidance on Pakistani Christians and Christian converts, and says that new guidance is "urgently required" to reflect the situation on the ground. Concerns that the UK guidance contains "serious flaws" were shared by organisations giving evidence to the group, including Amnesty International. 

The guidance is not just causing difficulty for those seeking asylum in the UK, the APPG notes. It is being used to "de-legitimise" the asylum claims of Pakistani Christians in Thailand, even if deporting them to Pakistan will put their lives in danger.

The guidance currently reflects a tribunal ruling that Christians in Pakistan "suffer discrimination, but this is not sufficient to amount to a real risk of persecution". It also states that the Pakistani government is "willing and able to provide protection against such attacks, and internal relocation is a viable option". This is contradicted by the Foreign Office's own guidance, which admits that there is "not much protection of religious minorities from the Government". 

The APPG report recommends that those writing the Home Office guidance should look at the different Christian denominations in Pakistan, and take note of the fact that communication technology means that information can quickly be passed on about individuals under threat, even if they relocate within Pakistan. It should also take into account the “strong evidence” of the Pakistani authorities’ failure to protect minorities. Those assessing asylum cases should be trained in the religious and cultural context, it recommends, and the applications of the dependents of individuals granted asylum on grounds of religious persecution should be fast-tracked.

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The plight of the 11,500 Pakistan Christians living illegally, or being held in detention centres, seeking asylum in the Thailand, is considered in the report, which features testimony from the APPG’s vice-chairman, Lord Alton of Liverpool, who visited the UNHCR Bangkok detention camp in September. The report states that the UK’s Home Office guidance on Pakistani Christians and Christian converts is being used to "de-prioritise and de-legitimise Christian asylum-seekers’ applications even if returning these individuals to Pakistan will leave them at a significant and real risk of attack, torture, or being killed".

Lord Alton reported "appalling, scandalous overcrowding; the lamentable failure to process asylum applications — some will not be considered and resolved until 2018; the dismal lack of UNHCR resources and personnel; the lack of legal representation for detainees; the failure to protect women and children; inadequate and flawed translation provisions; the denial of education for children and young people; meagre health care, leading to deteriorating conditions and deaths of refugees while detained; and the dismissal of evidence from Pakistan highlighting an escalation in violence against the tiny Christian minority, and the well-founded fear of lethal persecution."

More than 20 sources gave evidence to the APPG, which held two evidence sessions. Among those who testified was the alleged last self-identifying Jew in Pakistan.

The report, published on Wednesday, sets out a “bleak” situation for minorities in Pakistan, including Hindu and Ahmadiyya communities. Minorities face “relentless violence, profound discrimination, and, in some cases, outright persecution”, Lord Alton writes in a foreword, which says that forced conversions to Islam, rape, and forced marriage are “commonplace”. Pakistan is 96 per cent Muslim; Christians represent 1.59 per cent of the population.

The report recommends that the Department for International Development should prioritise the promotion of freedom of religion or belief when engaging with Pakistan, one of the main recipients of aid (more than £1 billion over the past two years). Aid should be channelled to those organisations and programmes “that can demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of freedom of religion or belief”.

Recommendations addressed to Pakistan include changes to legislation and “deeply embedded cultural norms”.

The report describes how the “noble aspirations” of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who emphasised freedom of belief, have been “trampled on by men who despise difference”.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Home Office defended its guidance, which was “based on a careful and objective assessment of the situation in Pakistan, using evidence taken from a range of sources including media outlets; local, national, and international organisations, including human-rights organisations; and information from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. While this guidance helps inform decisions, every application for asylum is considered on its individual merits.”

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