Thailand should be ashamed of its treatment of Christian refugees

The Pakistani Christian community is being persecuted, despite official UK policy saying they are merely discriminated against.Reuters

Thailand. Lovely place. Bangkok is buzzing, the beaches of Phuket are world-renowned holiday destinations, and there's history and culture by the bucket-load. I did some work in Chiang Mai a few years ago and fell a bit in love with it. Enjoyed the sticky rice. Nearly ate a candied bee in the night market before I realised what it was. Rode on an elephant.

Thailand imprisons hundreds of Christians. Children are kept with their families and suffer diarrhoea and vomiting because of the filthy conditions. Other families are separated, with the men taken off to even harsher confinement where they are shackled with chains weighing up to 4.5 kg. They are fined ruinously large amounts and detained until they pay, relying on charities and missionaries for help.

These Christians are refugees from Pakistan, where their lives have become unendurably difficult because of the rise in Islamist extremism and the failure of the legal system to offer them protection. They make their way to Thailand because they believe life will be better there.

They are UN-registered asylum seekers, but Thailand doesn't want them. It is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and anyone without a valid visa or a work permit risks being arrested, charged with illegal immigration and jailed. UNHCR is allowed to assess their claims, but there is a backlog of years. In the meantime, those who avoid detention suffer police raids and live in absolute poverty.

Their plight has been highlighted by a BBC report from a reporter who succeeded in going into one of the centres undercover. It's not as if people don't know about it. Just this week Lord Alton of Liverpool spoke of visiting a camp where he said where Pakistani Christians "are kept in degrading conditions" and "left to fester" while their asylum applications took years to process.

Thailand has the reputation of being a relatively benevolent state which generally protects religious freedom. However, its treatment of Pakistani Christian refugees is shameful.

According to Lord Alton, one of the things that might help them is a change in policy by the British government. It continues to say, in the face of all the evidence, that Christians fleeing the country are "not at a real risk of persecution". Tell that to Asia Bibi, imprisoned for years on a trumped up blasphemy charge. It is too late to tell it to Shahzad and Shama Masih, murdered and burned in a brick kiln because they were Christians.

Speaking on Wednesday of an all-party report on religion in Pakistan, Alton said: "The official line of the UK government is that there is no persecution, the reality is the opposite of that and our report dispenses with that illusion."

International pressure can get Thailand to treat Christian refugees decently. There's another thing that might help, too. Travel and tourism account for around 20 per cent of Thailand's GDP. I can see why; it was, as I say, lovely.

But I won't be going back until things change, and I don't think others should either.

Many, many tourists visit Thailand, Christians among them. But why should we help swell the coffers of people who treat other Christians like criminals? When the Thai government fails in its basic humanitarian responsibility to some of the most vulnerable people in the world, why should we lie on its beaches, ride on its elephants and pretend all is well? Can we really amble peacefully round the markets of Patpong knowing that Christians are kept in chains a few miles away?

If we're travellers, there are plenty of other places in the world to visit. Until it changes how it treats Christian refugees, we should cross Thailand off the list.