Asylum and the Ahmadiyya jama‘at
Save in exceptional instances the Ahmadi jama ‘at has been reluctant to intervene on behalf of individuals seeking asylum. This is made clear in a letter from 2007 on behalf of an asylum seeker in which a senior official from the Ahmadi Jama ‘at writing to the solicitor dealing with the case states:
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Association UK (the ‘Association’) does not normally write letters of support for asylum applicants. Each Ahmadi Muslim is required to pursue his or her claim. The Association does not have the resource to verify each FIR19 or aspect of persecution suffered by each Ahmadi applicant. However, according to our records, there have been about three thousand asylum applicants whose membership the Association has confirmed to the Undersecretary of State for the Home Office over the past 22 years. Contrary to Home Office fears this number is a paltry number when compared to other refugees and the actual persecution suffered by the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan. There is a huge majority that bears atrocities, personal attacks and violence ... but lack the strength, resolve or means to do anything about it. Only a handful whose persecution has been most severe has been able to find its way beyond Pakistan. Out of this number, the Association may have elaborated on less than 50 cases since 1985 on the particular circumstances of an individual applicant. . . . The Association does not consider such letters to be letters of support but merely a recital of the facts known to the Association at that time.
(extract from letter, asylum seeker’s file, 2007)
Those the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association (AMA) writes on behalf of are members whose services to the community are very well known or whose risk of further persecution is deemed to be inevitable if the person is returned to Pakistan. In one interview I was told that the Ahmadi jama ‘at had, exceptionally, paid for the legal costs of one of their members because he was considered to have already endured such appalling violence that the jama ‘at had a moral obligation to support him.20 This man was a survivor of the 2010 mosque attacks in Lahore. I was told that the jama ‘at had paid in the region of £60,000 in legal fees to support the asylum claim of this particular individual.
In most cases, however, while individuals do not expect to have letters written by the Association which ‘elaborate on . .. the particular circumstances of an individual applicant’ (Ahmadi asylum seeker’s file 2007), they can and do ask the association to verify that they are indeed Ahmadis. This matters as some claims can be refused if the immigration interviewing officer, the case owner,21 does not believe that the asylum seeker really is an Ahmadi. And one of the reasons an asylum seeker might not be considered a genuine Ahmadi is because many of those who flee Pakistan use the services of agents who obtain fake passports for them to travel on. This situation has arisen because Pakistani passports list the faith of the holder and this can sometimes make international travel difficult for Ahmadis.22 This is particularly so if an Ahmadi has come to the attention of the authorities, has had an FIR issued against her or him, or has been thr eatened by Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The passports agents procure for Ahmadis cost, in 2018, between 500,000 and 1 million Pakistani rupees (about £3,200 and £6,400 at 2018 rates of exchange) - a significant amount of money in Pakistan. But these fake passports may also cost the asylum seeker credibility with the immigration case owner who may use the fake passport to cast doubt on other aspects of the asylum seeker's claims made in the witness statement. This might happen, for example, if a case owner uses Section 8(2)(b) and (3)(b) of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 to state that the use of a false document, or one that does not belong to the asylum seeker, to enter the country is evidence of the use of deception to pass immigration control and thus damages the credibility of the asylum seeker. In effect, an asylum claim can be damaged and may even be rejected on grounds that have nothing to do with the persecution a person may have suffered but rather with the means an asylum seeker used to flee the country where the persecution took place (cf. also Good 2011:112-113).
Though having said this, an Ahmadi asylum seeker who does travel on a genuine passport may well find that this too can be used against him as happened in the case of one asylum seeker I prepared a country expert report for after his initial claim for refugee status was rejected by the Home Office. In the Reasons for Refusal letter the asylum seeker received explaining why refugee status was not granted, one reason he was given for the denial was because ‘you were able to leave Pakistan on your own passport without any problems, which is unlikely to be the case if the authorities are interested in you’. For some of those, including myself, who worked on asylum cases as solicitors or expert report writers, there was a lurking suspicion that whatever an asylum seeker stated in an interview or presented as evidence to support a claim might be disputed by a case owner who would scour the Home Office’s own ‘objective’ country of origin information material or use immigration regulations to refuse claims (e.g. Tsangarides 2010:42; Good 2011; Kelly 2006).
For their part, the AMA recognizes the problems that would arise if any Pakistani asylum seeker could simply claim to be Ahmadi and gain refugee status on this basis. The AMA has therefore, as I was repeatedly told, worked with the Home Office to provide a list of questions that immigration case owners can ask those who claim to be Ahmadi to ascertain if the interviewee really is an Ahmadi. For obvious reasons the exact questions and their approved responses are not made widely available, but I was told that they might be along the lines of ‘can you tell me the name of the third khalifa’s wife?’ The answers to such questions are thought to be a matter of general knowledge within the jama ‘at, but not for a person who might falsely be claiming to be Ahmadi in order to gain refugee status in the UK.23
In addition to being able to answer Ahmadi designed and Home Office accepted questions about Ahmadiyyat, any Ahmadi individual can, as noted earlier, ask the Ahmadi Association to verify for the Home Office that they are indeed members of the jama ‘at. This is a formal bureaucratic procedure which is recognized by the UK authorities. In brief, because all Ahmadis are registered with their local mosque wherever they reside, it is possible to verify if a particular person really is a member of the jama ‘at. The Ahmadi community verification process is global in reach and administratively well organized so that lines of communication and procedures are in theory, and in practice also most of the time, uniformly followed, no matter where the request for verification comes from. The UK system for verifying whether an individual is a member of the Ahmadiyya jama ‘at is described in a Home Office COIN: Pakistan, Ahmadis (Home Office 2018:57— 59), and requires an Ahmadi to complete a ‘Particulars of the Ahmadi Applicant’ form, with information, including name, positions held in the community and reasons for leaving Pakistan, with relevant dates.24 The form is then sent to Rabwah for processing and involves passing the information on to the individual’s local jama ‘at in Pakistan to have the details about the individual confirmed. In the past the forms would be gathered together and sent in a bundle to be delivered by hand with a member of the jama ‘at who was known to be planning to travel to Pakistan and could be trusted with jama ‘at business. With advances in technology later forms were faxed to Pakistan and nowadays the forms are scanned and emailed, making the whole process faster and more efficient than was previously the case. If the verification process reveals that an asylum seeker is not an Ahmadi the person is asked, by the jama ‘at, to withdraw the application. The highest authorities in the jama ‘at, the Nazir Umur ‘Anima (executive director of Public and General Affairs), Wakilu Tabshir (executive director of Foreign Missions) in Rabwah and the Additional Wakilu Tabshir London (the executive in charge of the UK Chapter of the Director of Foreign Missions), collate information that is received about individuals. Information is relayed to the Home Office only via the Secretary Umur ‘Amma (Public or General Affairs) UK or by the national president or the vice president UK. Ahmadis may also ask to have particular events or activities that took place in Pakistan confirmed by their jama ‘at in Pakistan to support an asylum claim in the UK and a specific procedure for this is also set out.25
The AMA can issue a letter reproducing the information on the applicant received from the headquarters in Rabwah. The letter contains a file reference number, the name of the applicant, date of birth, nationality, and UK Border Agency’s reference number. The letter is signed by the Secretary Umur A’ama UK (General or Public Affairs Department), although sometimes it can be signed also by another person within that department or by one of the five national vice presidents of the AMA. The letter is issued to the applicant’s solicitor and a copy can be provided to the asylum seeker for his records. Letters for converts are issued after at least two years of initiation and . .. will contain the exact date and place of initiation in the UK.
(IRB Canada 2013)26
It is perhaps worth noting just how much personal information relating to individual Ahmadis the bureaucracy of the AMA has access to. Once a member of the Ahmadi Muslim jama ‘at has completed a ‘Particulars of the Ahmadi Applicant’ form and has been verified as a member of the community, the person is, in the UK, US and Canada, issued with an AIMS (Ahmadiyya Information Management System) card which provides the member with a unique AIMS number. The AIMS card provides individuals with verification of their position within the jama ‘at. In the UK, the Ahmadi member is asked to go to the Baitul Futuh mosque in London to have a photograph taken for the AIMS card which also includes the person’s name and the branch where she or he lives. The AIMS card has the dimensions and feel of a credit card with a bar code on the bottom right, a membership number above the bar code and the person’s name above that (Home Office 2016:37). Children under 15 have AIMS cards without photographs. However, possession of an AIMS card does not automatically mean that the person is currently a member of the jama ‘at as those against whom there are disciplinary proceedings may have their membership suspended or ended (IRB Canada 2013).
Through the AIMS card, an individual within the community can be quickly identified by those with access to the internal electronic data system. This was made very clear to me by a woman I know who had been living in the USA and was registered with a mosque in the United States but had returned to live and work in the UK where her natal family was based. On arriving at jalsa salana in the UK a few years ago she found herself questioned about why she had not asked to be reassigned to a local UK mosque and, most disconcertingly, realized the Ahmadi official she was talking to - a complete stranger - had access to information about her chanda (charitable donations) records and could list her relatives, her precise relation to each of them, state what their marital status was and access other personal information. The AIMS cards gives access, therefore, to considerable amounts of information held by the jama ‘at, not just on the card holders but also on their kin.
As a final point on the AMA's direct engagement with the Home Office I briefly note the relationship between the AMA and the Home Office, each year around the time of the annual Ahmadi jalsa in England. Many thousands of Ahmadis from all over the world come for this event to Hampshire, where the Ahmadis have purchased a farm large enough to accommodate the Ahmadis and visitors who attend. For some Ahmadis requiring visas to enter the UK, senior officials from the AMA UK meet with British officials in the United Arab Emirates to process the visa applications together. I was told that relations between the Ahmadis and the British visa officials are cordial, and that they are often able to resolve differences but that not all applicants are successfill. Those likely to find their visa applications rejected are Ahmadis with relatives who are either asylum seekers or who have been granted refugee status in the UK. And for its part the AMA also advises visiting Ahmadis not to overstay their visas or to use their visa for purposes other than attending the jalsa. A ‘Directives for Guests and Workers’ document from the 2009 jalsa includes the following ‘Advice Regarding Visa’:
Please observe the other laws of this country during your stay here. Make sure that you leave this country before your visit visa expires. Those who obtained the visa to come to Jalsa must utilize the entry clearance for the Jalsa alone strictly.27
Beyond verifying that a person is indeed a member of the jama ‘at, the AMA does not provide a great deal of assistance to new arrivals in the UK. They are told to handle their asylum applications on their own, and advised to claim on arrival at the airport or as soon after as possible in order to ‘have credibility’ with the UK Border Agency, a branch of the Home Office. The jama ‘at does not offerassistance with accommodation for new arrivals to the UK, and only if absolutely necessary will such persons be granted a three- to six-day stay at the mosque. This is because the mosque is not resourced to deal with individuals or families who need longer accommodation. Nor does the jama 'at recommend lawyers for asylum seekers to go to when preparing their asylum claim. While there are Ahmadi solicitors, and some of these specialize in asylum and immigration matters, the jama ‘at is wary of directing asylum seekers to these solicitors as they are not responsible for the actions of any individual solicitor (some of whom are reputed to have made a lucrative living from asylum cases), nor can they take responsibility for or intervene in cases where refugee status has been denied.
Officials I met with at the London mosque were also quite pragmatic about distinctions between different kinds of migrants: economic migrants who do not meet the UNHCR Article 1(A)(2) standard for refugee status and those described to me as ‘religious persecution' migrants who deserve asylum on these grounds. For those in this latter group I was told different people have ‘different intensities of faith’. I took this to mean that while some individuals can demonstrate that they are active and committed members of the jama ‘at, for others obtaining objective evidence to support their claims about their faith is harder. Of course, a person can have deep faith without being actively involved in mosque affairs or even attending prayers on a regular basis, and in one case I recall being told by a person who had been excluded from the Ahmadi jama ‘at that she was born an Ahmadi and would die an Ahmadi, no matter what the official jama ‘at position on her was. And as far as meeting the threshold for refugee status in terms of religious persecution is concerned, even someone who is not particularly devout but who is targeted in Pakistan for simply being an Ahmadi, an identity position one might have from birth, would seem to have a prima facie claim to refugee status on grounds of religious persecution.