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Numbers of asylum seekers sailing through Mediterranean Sea from Turkey reduces but people smuggling continues despite $6 billion EU payout

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Image of centre operated by a local church that helps asylum seekers with food and counselling.  

British Pakistani Christian Association Chairman, Wilson Chowdhry travelled to Greece after receiving reports of a growing number of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in Athens. 

Hilda Orr a long term friend of the BPCA who met with Wilson during a visit to speak at a conference in Belfast, and who then joined our first ever protest in Belfast shared concerns about Pakistani Christian asylum seekers who were homeless and destitute.

Hilda is a long term volunteer in Greece on a self funded programme linked with a church in Greece.  The volunteer experience is designed to help asylum seekers in Greece where numbers have reached phenomenal levels.  Greece is a target for many asylum seekers as access via sea from Turkey has become relatively easy and regular.


Images of the centre on the window can be seen the word 'Hope'.

The group provide uncooked food parcels, advise and support, temporary shelter in some cases where volunteers seek the funding and act as a base for fellowship. Hilda has been out there for the last three months and this was not her first long period serving in Greece.  

The group tries to create as normal a life as possible for volunteers and asylum seekers and as it was St Patrick's day the Irish contingent of Hilda and her daughter planned a night of Irish Jigs and stews.  The Irish Jigs were a little hard for some of us so it became a night of cultural dance which was probably the most exciting night many of the asylum seekers had had for a long time - mainly because of Hilda's stew of course!



Although accommodation for volunteers is very raw with many sleeping on floors or sofa's unless they are able to yield enough donations for a shared flat, they seemed very accepting. The commitment of these volunteers was evident to see and they all had a good rapport with the asylum seekers.

One Muslim couple that regularly attend the help centre have decided to follow Christ and have already started Baptism classes. Hilda has requested forty Urdu Bibles for Greece to give to the Pakistani Christians she knows of without the Gospel in their own language.  BPCA is now printing bibles in Pakistan but to ship them across to Greece will cost £220 and we are seeking help for these transport costs.  If you would like to hep with a donation (click here)

She invited Wilson Chowdhry of the BPCA to travel to Athens to see what help they could give to a visibly growing number of struggling Pakistani Christian asylum seekers. 

On the first day Hilda introduced Wilson to two Pakistani Christian Asylum Seekers. Haroon Maqbool (39) and Tariq Iqbal (29), who had become close friends and compatriots during their stay in Greece. The two of them could not not have more contrasting stories...


Haroon Maqbool, Hilda Orr, Wilson Chowdhry and Tariq Iqbal.

Haroon Maqbool is a married man with two children.  He was well employed in Rawal Pindi, Pakistan and had a very comfortable life.  First he was a receptionist in a hotel and later he became a drive for the UN World Food Programme.  

Haroon was also a committed Christian and a volunteer at his local Church we he attended weekly.  At his church he befriended a young man named Martin Mike who was of African descent who told Haroon he was from South Africa.

The two of them got on very well and so it was on no real consequence when Martin asked Haroon if he could use his account to receive some payments.  Martin told Haroon that due to not having a registered income and weak identification documents he was not able to open an account of his own.

Two days after Haroon had agreed to permit Martin use of his account police men came knocking on his door.  They told Haroon that a serious fraud of in excess of £80,000 had occurred through his account.  Haroon went with the police to his bank and found the stolen money was indeed in his account and he returned it to the Police to give to the victims.

Haroon gave Martin Mike's details to the police but when they could not find Martin they arrested Haroon again and tried to torture him into giving a confession. After a months imprisonment he was released from jail and absconded to with his family to his in-laws house. Haroon then separated and hid in various different cheap rentals for 6 months until he was introduced to an agent who agreed to get him to Greece for $5000.

Haroon paid the fee and found himself on a plane to Dubai in July 2015.  There he was placed in a squat by a further agent at Daira, he was with many other people seeking asylum.  They were all fed one meal a day for a month and then finally given a ticket for a plane to Turkey.

In Turkey Haroon was met by the next agent who provided a squat and very basic food for 3 months and told to wait for a boat ride to Greece. After 3 months he was advised to find his own home and so he found work packaging in a factory. After a further 3 months he was given his first opportunity to get to Greece he and 20 other people were placed in a small rubber dinghy approximately 4 metres in length and were told to paddle to the Island of Lesbos.  They were given very basic navigatory instructions and were rushed into the sea.

Haroon remembers his fear when he went on the boat he and his friends were very aware of the death of Alan Kurdi a 3 year old child found washed up on a shore in September 2015.  They had also heard of many other asylum seekers who had died enroute to Greece. Haroon said:

"I knew I was putting my life in danger and would probably not come back alive.  But what was waiting for me in Pakistan I was being fitted up for a crime I did not commit and I simply had no option." 

Somehow on the way both the paddles for the dinghy were lost and the group thought they were going to die in the sea.  Fortunately a police boat found them saved them from the slowly capsizing dinghy and took them back to Turkey. They were all sentenced to 3 months incarceration for overstaying their travel visas. Haroon and four friends were bullied daily because of their Christianity, so they all went on hunger strike till a senior prison warden visited them and agreed to give them protection.

After their sentence was complete the asylum seekers which included four Pakistani Christians were set free in Turkey.  The agent resumed communication and within a month a boat had been secured for Lesbos Island.  Haroon and many other asylum seekers were advised that when they arrive on the shore they would be greeted by Red Cross volunteers who would immediately help them get to their country of choice, a commonly perpetuated myth.

This time a party of 47 were given a much large rubber dinghy approximately 7 metres, with an engine. The boat was crowded but Haroon and his fellow Christian compatriots who he met through the journey simply prayed through the journey.  Their prayers were soon recognized by Muslim asylum seekers who demanded they 'stop speaking to the devil'. The men said their prayers in the minds for the rest of the journey which was soon over.  Their 2 hour journey led them to Lesbos Island in August 2016 where they were met by Red Cross volunteers who gave all the weary travellers some blankets for warmth, a change of cloths and some hot drinks. 

People smuggling like this is not unusual, the UN records hundreds of thousands of refugees every year who travel across the Agean and Mediterranean Sea every year.  Turkey has promised a crackdown and received a budget of $6 Billion dollars from the European Union to police their borders more effectively, since the payout numbers of reported asylum seekers have reduced but the dangerous travel is continuing. Turkish authorities have jailed for five years four men who were involved in the illegal smuggling of the Kurdi family but hundreds of smugglers who have been involved in the death of 4000 asylum seekers just last year continue to escape justice.



Within 30 minutes of getting some rest the asylum seekers were met by local police accompanied by UN officers. This shocked Haroon, he said:

"We had been told that when we arrived at Greece the Red Cross would welcome us with open arms, provide some gifts and then swiftly organize safe passage to a European destination of our choice.

"Almost immediately we were being told that we would be imprisoned in a camp.

"I am only one of many asylum seekers there are thousands of them in Turkey waiting to travel by boat to Greece.  Every day I see hundreds of them, I soon realized the camps would be just as packed as the harbours of Turkey."

The group was taken to the infamous Moria Camp and told to register for asylum there.  Muslim's pushed the Christians to the back of the queue and told them not to enter the camp or they would be killed. The Christian men realized they would not survive long in the camp so after submitting their finger prints they did not fully register with the camp.

They stayed in the camp for seven days but were bullied constantly as word spread that they were Christians. Every day fights erupted amongst asylum seekers, and they were very scared. After a week of constant harassment and attempts to convert them to Islam, the Christians decided to move to the side of the camp and spent their days and nights under a very raw shelter rather then the tents provided by the UN. 

After a further 10 days one of his compatriots noticed a cargo ship which they could easily slip into and hide.  So a group of them snuck into the dangerous and uncomfortable cargo area and lay low for 16 long hours till they arrived on the mainland.  They quickly escaped from the ship and sought help from some local Pakistani Christian men they met who advised them to register for asylum via a local charity 'Solidarity Now' who are working with the UN. They have not been able to offer Haroon any support yet because he only registered his finger prints and did not apply for asylum at Lesbos due to the threats received by him. The UN have not yet registered Haroon as an asylum seeker as the process requires him to keep trying skype for an interview, but the system is congested and while he was homeless and even now without internet facilities at his home provided by Hilda he has little access to the internet.   

For now 3 years after his escape from Pakistan he has no status and is still an illegal immigrant.

Tariq Iqbal, came from a very different background and had to leave school at the age of 11 years, after his parents could not pay the costs for travel to school, for his lunch and uniform and other paraphernalia. So he was forced to work as a labourer form a young age.  

Despite being very illiterate Tariq knew the principles of his Christian faith and like many men in rural Pakistan was very passionate about church and God, as he was accepted there and God was his only hope.

Tariq joined the voluntary security workforce and watched over his church in Sanghwahli, near Sialkot as he lived next door. Local Muslims were always upset about the church as the spire of the church was taller then the local mosque.  

One day infuriated Muslims began throwing stones at the church. Tariq saw the activity and asked them to stop because they were causing damage and no-one had any argument with them. When the men told him they were upset about the height of the spire, he simply told them that they could build their mosque or their minarets taller, local Christians would not have any problem with this.

The men took offence to his response and started to beat Tariq and but he escaped with the help of some friends. But after this he was bullied beaten as were other Christian men in the area.

A local Panchayat (meeting of elders) in which Muslim outnumbered Christians and it was agreed that violence would stop but Tariq say's nothing changed.

Many skirmishes later one day whilst walking on Sialkot Road, Tariq witnessed the murder of a Christian woman Shakil Manzoor. The murder was related to the same gangs, when he spoke up as a witness he started to receive detah threats, so his church helped him escape to Greece 5 years ago.

He came by Air after gaining sponsorship through a friend and lived as an illegal immigrant living off low paid labour work picking oranges.  One day whilst taking a break police came to the field and he was arrested and sent to Corinth Jail.  Whilst here he was advised to try to apply for asylum and which he did whilst incarcerated.  he was in the jail for 15 years when they moved him to Monadi Jail where he was detained for 2 months. During this time he had his first interview with the UNCHR.

After two months he was moved to Athena Jail and there he was given refugee status 'by a miracle' says Tariq.  He informed us that he prayed every day without fail and trusted God throughout his detainment. He said:

"I knew God would deliver me from captivity, he can move mountains and he tore down the walls of Jericho, he parted the Red Sea and he gave me freedom back." 

Hilda found Haroon and 5 other Pakistani Christians homeless on the street during a very harsh winter.  Through an appeal she gained the necessary funds to pay for 6 months rent for a flat.  One couple who was with the original seven has been given a separate flat through a kindly donor as the wife is 6 months pregnant and was very vulnerable. The funds  for the original were due to run out at the end of this month and BPCA paid for an additional month at the cost of 200 euros.  We would like to perpetuate this flat for asylum seekers in desperate need and have set up an appeal for the costs.   The flat will only be used for those out of work as some do find illegal work and ways to support themselves. We will also have help form volunteers on the ground through Hilda who will make sure every support is given to ensure that these people are helped into work and have available counselling. If you would like to donate towards the cost of the Shelter for homeless asylum seeker please (click here)


This Hazara Tribe couple have made a makeshift home from some sheets and a small tent. Their 'home' is within a disused warehouse that has become a UN shelter for refugees.

Hilda later that day took Wilson to view one of the many UN Camps in Greece.  Wilson Chowdhry was astounded at the hospitality shown by the asylum seeker community.  He said:

"This was a hugely enriching experience as the welcome I received was amazing.  Refugees and asylum seekers were not asking for anything but genuinely wanted to talk with people from the outside - probably because they feel like outsiders in their isolation on the camp.

"We gave oil, rice and biscuits to a few families and sat and talked with them for a while.  Many offered us food and drinks and all were extremely hospitable.  

"Although there were no Christians in the camp - mainly because they become the victims of attacks - I did meet a Pakistani couple from the Hazara tribe who had escaped from Quetta. The family had lived in Birmingham before and remembered England with great fondness.  

"Local people knew we were Christians because I was very open about this and was wearing a cross i had just purchased made of olive wood. Yet they were still very open and friendly with us in a manner that they perhaps would not have been if I was a Christian asylum seeker.  Even then it gave me hope that people of different backgrounds can live together in peace if the desire is there.  

"Ensuring that desire is there is a role all of us should play- BPCA's work is inclusive to people of all backgrounds we use the opportunity to reach out to wider communities ."



More makeshift homes within the UN Shelter.  The sheets provide some privacy for over 800 dwellers.

During the course of his week in Greece, Wilson spoke at two churches and was amazed at the resourcefulness of Pakistani Christians, who were able to worship with traditional instruments they either brought to Greece with them or had shipped to Pakistan, so that they could worship God with some impetus.

Pastor Aftab, is head of 'Evangelical Pakistani Christians in Athens' a self funded church that operates on the basis of donations from the congregation made up of more established Pakistani Christians.  These are refugees who have been granted right to work or some with work or business visas.  Church services are held within a small rented shop inside a complex in the district of Omonia.  The Pastor has the respect of his congregation and provides pastoral care and instruction which is very much appreciated. Pastor Aftab has asked for help with gaining naturalization, the cost to him will be around £1200, which would include legal fees and the cost of submission. He is dedicated to living and working in Greece which is where he feels the Lord has called him.  If you would like to help him continue his valuable work then please (click here)

Pastor Emmanuel's church is more established and is located in ambilopiki district.  His church is supported by an American mission and so is more stable. Church also has 20 -25 regular attenders with numbers increasing at times throughout the year.  Pastor Emmanuel has told us that he intends to start a new programme to help asylum seekers in Greece and we have advised him that we are available to provide help and guidance.  



Mr Chowdhry visited the UNHCR building in the district of Katehaki.  There he met with several members of the Asylum team who provided him with appropriate email addresses, to which he can send copies of our report on Pakistani Christians. It is hoped the report will trigger a more favourable review of future Pakistani Christian asylum applications. It is well known amongst all the volunteers and NGO's working in Greece that Syrian refugees are being prioritized and that Pakistani Christians are being seriously overlooked. Many Pakistani Christians have failed their asylum applications and continue to live illegal in Greece through fear of return - all of them are exploited in abysmal jobs for a pittance or are homeless.



Mr Chowdhry met several other Pakistani Christians including a Pakistani Christian reporter who had just arrived a week earlier and was asking for advice.  We met Asher in a 'Show Solidarity' advice centre which is contracted to the UNHCR and provide legal advice and support including housing.  Asher informed us that he was threatened by Muslim extremists after covering numerous stories of persecution of Christians in Pakistan.  A fact that is supported by annual reports by the International Federation of journalists which had Pakistan as the most dangerous country for Journalists (click here)until last year.  Now Pakistan has dropped to fourth place (click here) which is still significant.

Many more Pakistani Christians were met and we provided what small aid we could. We are seeking to create a regular ongoing fund for Pakistani Christians amounting to £200 so we can continue to provide a free home for new arrivals or homeless asylum seekers.  For now that plus advice and support will make up our regular contribution to the Pakistani Christians in Greece.  If you would like to help us with this aim please donate by (clicking here)


Here is an image of the home for 7 Pakistani Christians that we would like to fund.  It does not have electricity but they are happy to do without just to have a roof over their heads is a blessing.  If donations exceed £200 a month we can include for electricity and furniture.


This is the other room in the seven bedroom house.



Imran a Pakistani Christian (left) helped Wilson buy a new phone after Wilson's was stolen when rushed by a gang on a train.  Tariq gave Imran a gift from Wilson for his help.


I met more Pakistani Christians at the Party for St Patrick's Day


Tariq received a UNHCR Asylum registration whilst in Prison


Outside Pastor Aftab's church

 




The UNHCR are still using the old style paper asylum registration cards in Greece.






When shopping for a new phone we met another Pakistani Christian.


Hilda Counsels a Syrian woman





Syrians playing cricket outside their camp.

Washroom facilities for the camp.


Desperate asylum seekers have to queue for provisions


A 'Labrinyth' of tents.


A Makeshift clothes line.


Irish jigs turned into a disco with cultural music on a night of fun.








15 years old
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