(Bangkok) June 8, 2014 — Bright light was filtering through the rainbow paned glass in the Jesuit chapel as the Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific staff from the Philippines, Indonesia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Thailand all gathered around Amber*, a small baby in the arms of her parents, Sheeba* and Dawood*, from Pakistan.
Bambang Sipayung S.J., JRS Asia Pacific Director, said the Baptism mass and all of us sang hymns together that many of us already knew, growing up Catholic in different corners of the world. During his homily, Fr Bambang mentioned the overall work of JRS- to accompany asylum seekers and refugees like this Pakistani family and ensure protection for those who have been forced to flee their homes throughout the region.
As we prayed together that day, we knew we were joyfully fulfilling this mission. The recently baptized baby in our midst now had the protection the Catholic Church can offer- a Baptism certificate, granted by Jesuit priests, and other services provided by JRS while they remain unrecognized guests in Thailand.
The number of asylum seekers in Thailand quadrupled last year. The majority of new arrivals are Christians and Shiite or Ahmadiyya Muslims from Pakistan, as targeted religious persecution becomes the norm across their homeland. In addition, Syrians and Palestinians fleeing the conflict in Syria join the existing population of Sri Lankan, Vietnamese and others seeking protection in Thailand, bringing the refugee and asylum-seeking population to more than 8,000.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) believes the number of asylum seekers in Thailand will reach 13,000 by the end of 2014 and possibly 20,000 by the end of 2015. This is a situation the authorities in Thailand, despite the current political turmoil, can no longer afford to ignore as refugees and asylum seekers are currently entitled to very little in the way of international protection.
Those without valid immigration documentation can be arrested and detained at any time. Many are at constant risk of exploitation or destitution since they have no right to take up employment as they wait up to seven years before being recognized as refugees. That refugee and asylum-seeking children are now entitled to attend Thai schools and their parents can buy national health insurance offer a sign of hope. However language and financial barriers as well as a lack of information can make accessing these services extremely difficult.
*Names have been changed for reasons of security
As we continue to pray with and for the refugee and asylum seeking people in our midst, let us remember to extend hospitality to them in practical ways, as well as spiritual.
As Araya Kuppatithumakul, a Thai JRS staff member and honorary godmother of the baby baptized last November said:
"For the parents, it must have been difficult to get a chance, to come out of hiding and travel to central Bangkok, to celebrate a sacrament and receive a document which offers a small amount of official protection for their baby.
"Their life must usually be lonely, with no one to understand what they are going through or even their language, it would be so hard to stay empowered and energised. All of us at JRS try to serve every day…I was also happy to serve in this small way, to make them feel welcomed in Thailand. I hope that as their baby is born again in God it will give them a warm, new energy to keep going."
For the Lord, your God, is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes;
who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him.
So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.