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Ahmadi asylum seekers

To become a refugee who can then, perhaps, begin to think about seeking family reunification, an asylum seeker has first to be recognized by the Home Office as a person in need of international protection on the basis of one of the five UNHCR grounds for granting refugee status. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, modified by the 1967 protocol, defines a refugee in Article 1(A)(2) as someone who:

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

(UNCHR 2010:14)

In what follows, I examine the situation of Ahmadis who claim asylum in the UK. I outline the ongoing persecution in Pakistan, which is the prime reason why Ahmadis flee the country today, and also the processes and difficulties faced by asylum seekers once they have decided to seek refugee status. But my primary focus is on how the interventions and strategies of the Ahmadi jama ‘at have developed over time in response to the difficulties experienced by Ahmadi asylum seekers in their efforts to obtain either refugee status or humanitarian protection.8 Obtaining refugee status or humanitarian protection often requires individuals to appeal against the almost routine initial refusals of their asylum claims.9 The delays in the determination of asylum cases are often expensive and stressful for the individuals seeking refugee status. They leave people unable to move on with their lives, to settle down and find work, and are disruptive of the lives of children whose educations may be compromised while cases are pending.10

Among the materials I draw on to discuss the asylum process are legal determinations available in the public domain promulgated by immigration judges on Ahmadi cases; the UK Home Office Country of Origin Information Reports (COI), now known as Country Policy and Information Notes (CPIN), and other Home Office materials produced to assist asylum case workers to assess the credibility ofasylum seekers and to help them determine if cases meet the threshold to qualify for refugee status; reports from US and Canada immigration departments among others, and from human rights organizations and British government and Ahmadi funded fact-finding missions detailing the situation of Ahmadis in Pakistan; interviews with members of the Ahmadi community, including Ahmadi solicitors specializing in immigration matters, a former Ahmadi asylum and immigration tribunal judge, and those who were themselves asylum seekers or who have family members who were asylum seekers; and my own first-hand experience, from 2005 to 2011, preparing country expert reports, commissioned by solicitors representing asylum seekers to provide the immigration courts with objective information about the conditions in the asylum seeker’s country of origin.11

During the six years I wrote reports for asylum seekers from India and Pakistan, I worked on cases involving both religious and gender-based forms of persecution (e.g. Balzani 2011). A small number of these reports, some 13 in total, related to Ahmadi Muslims or, to be more precise, to individuals claiming asylum because of a connection to Ahmadiyya Islam which they considered put them at serious risk of harm if they did not leave Pakistan to seek refuge in a safe country. In 10 of the 13 cases men were the ones seeking asylum, though in several of these cases spouses and children were also part of the asylum claim in some way. In one case, a man sought asylum not because he was Ahmadi but because, despite identifying as a Sunni Muslim, he had been accused of being Ahmadi and so was, he claimed, at risk just as any Ahmadi would be if brought to the attention of the Pakistani authorities and anti-Ahmadi organizations like Khatm-e-Nabuwat. In the case of this particular man, as for so many others in Pakistan, while he was clear that he himself was not an Ahmadi, he knew that some of the families in his extended kin network were. Ahmadi Muslims often have Sunni kin in Pakistan and relations between such kin may vary from passive acceptance to a refusal of social interactions to open hostility.12 In another case a woman sought asylum because her husband had become an Ahmadi while she and her daughters had not converted, and this resulted in abuse and threats from the husband, including attempts to marry the daughters off to Ahmadi men against the wishes of the daughters themselves. In yet other cases, people said that they had been threatened because they had successfully proselytized and converted others to Ahmadiyya Islam, and in one case an individual was also at further risk because, for complex reasons, the person had been excommunicated from the Ahmadi community. In this situation, the individual claimed that there was a fear of persecution and risk of harm not only on religious grounds for being an Ahmadi, but also because the excommunication meant that no Ahmadi, including close family who remained within the Ahmadi fold, would offer any support or assistance should the individual be forced to return to Pakistan. One Ahmadi man fled Pakistan after a business trip to Saudi Arabia during which he took the opportunity to make an umrah pilgrimage to Mecca. In this case the asylum seeker dated his persecution from the time his work colleagues found out about this and attacked him on the grounds that such a pilgrimage is only for Muslims. Some claimed asylum because they had converted to Ahmadiyya Islam in Pakistan, and when this was discovered they were accused of

Asylum and the Ahmadi diaspora 133 apostasy. Others were targeted because business-related disputes in which the faith of the asylum seeker was, in effect, simply the weapon used to gain advantage over the Ahmadi and win the dispute, even if it meant driving the Ahmadi out of business and out of the country. One man found himself, as Ahmadis increasingly have been in recent years, accused of terrorist related offences because he possessed Ahmadi publications that were deemed to constitute ‘hate literature’ (see also PHRG 2017:24). Another person had, after arriving in the UK, met and married an Ahmadi, which meant that this individual’s asylum situation was now even more complicated than it had been when the person came to the country. Asylum in this case was sought both for the reasons that brought the individual to the UK in the first place, and also for reasons resulting since arrival. And one person, whose immediate family had all obtained refugee status several years earlier, found himself at risk of deportation because he had been found guilty of committing a crime in the UK. As this brief overview demonstrates, while all these people were seeking asylum, their particular circumstances and experiences were very varied. However, all the cases, in one way or another, centred on the individuals’ faith as members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.

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