The Guardian have reported that ministers – including the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson – have called on the government to grant Asia Bibi asylum in the UK. Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy charges by the Pakistan Supreme Court last month. However, she remains under protective custody after Imran Khan, the Pakistan president, agreed to allow a petition against the court’s decision as part of a deal to halt mob protests. Bibi’s family remain in danger, her solicitor has sought to flee the country for his life, the supreme court judges are similarly under threat because mob justice demands she be executed. You can read the Guardian report here.
Having appealed to Britain for asylum, the Guardian report that ‘the UK high commissioner in Islamabad is reported to have warned he could not protect his staff if asylum was granted by the UK.’ This led Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, to ask Sir Simon McDonald – the Foreign Office permanent secretary – whether it ‘raise[s] the question that either staff should be withdrawn or security increased or otherwise UK policy is effectively dictated to by a mob?’
The point, I think, is a good one. If Britain is essentially saying we cannot grant asylum to Asia Bibi because we fear the reprisals on our British high commission in Pakistan, it is hard to see how we aren’t simply refusing to grant asylum because a mob threatened us. If the UK high commission is not defendable against this crowd of rabble-rousers, then – as Tugendhat suggests, we should be removing our people from Pakistan. If that would lead to strained relations with Pakistan, it is difficult to see how threatening our diplomatic ties by attacking the British high commission isn’t already leading to that happening.
More to the point, we all at least pay lip service to ‘doing the right thing’ when it comes to granting asylum. Now, anybody who has spent more than 5-minutes working with asylum seekers in the UK can tell you ‘the right thing’ does not always seem to be the highest priority, if it is a priority of any sort at all. But there is no government that would admit to that nor that would want to be shown to openly be neglecting a commitment to ‘doing the right thing’.
That being the case, it is hard to see how granting Asia Bibi – and removing our staff from the UK high commission – isn’t the obvious thing to do here. Even if we were looking at this from a cynical political point of view, it would surely be expedient to show the world that we do not bow to baying crowds and give in to the demands of mob justice.
As it happens, Britain is looking for a third country to grant Bibi asylum. Canada appears to be moving in that direction. But the question must be asked, how is it that Canada is able to protect their staff in the country but Britain is unable to protect theirs? Why does granting Bibi asylum in the UK cause danger to our staff but granting her asylum in Canada is, apparently, perfectly safe? There may be some explanation, but it’s entirely unclear what it is.
As Mike Gapes, Labour MP commented, ‘Given the clear inability of this new Pakistani government of Imran Khan to stop these mobs from intimidating and killing Christians in Pakistan, is it not time to reassess our relations with Pakistan? There are big concerns if religious minorities in Pakistan are not safe.’
I’ve got to say, it’s hard not to come to that conclusion. At a minimum, it must surely start with removing our staff and granting Bibi asylum. How the Pakistani government respond must surely dictate whether we need to further reassess our relationship with them. Be under no illusions, this is not the first incident of this kind, it just happens to be one that has gained serious traction in the mainstream media.