Exiled Journalists & HRDs

Refugee Jesus: Christmas & Refugees in Sri Lanka

First published at http://groundviews.org/2016/12/25/refugee-jesus-christmas-refugees-in-sri-lanka/ on 25th December 2016

Jesus was born as a refugee child. When Mary, the pregnant mother on the move couldn’t find a place to give birth, it was poor shepherds that welcomed them to their stable. Immediately after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had to flee, to save the baby Jesus’s life from assassination attempt of a cruel King. This is the story of Christmas.

This story of Refugee Jesus, the stable and poor but generous shepherds and fleeing parents had a huge resonance for me during Christmas 2008 in when babies were born in refugee camps and later in bunkers amidst showers of bombs and shells, in Northern Sri Lanka. Last week, when I attended a Christmas gathering of Pakistani refugees in Sri Lanka, I was again stuck by the story of this original Christmas.

Compared to grand Christmas parties and Christmas Carols in luxurious hotels, decorated and lighted up Christmas trees on streets, malls and churches in Colombo, the refugee’s Christmas party was a simple event. A few Catholic priests and sisters were present and helped to organize the event. But otherwise, it was attended and run only by refugee families including children. More than the Christmas Carols, I remember them singing “we shall overcome some day…we shall live in peace some day…we shall be free some day”.

Refugees from Sri Lanka and Refugees in Sri Lanka

More than a million Sri Lankans are estimated to have fled the country as refugees to India and western countries during the war and afterwards. Even this year, those subjected to abductions and inhumane torture in Sri Lanka have fled to England. Many activists and journalists who had criticized and challenged the Rajapakse’s dictatorial and corrupt family rule were also compelled to flee Sri Lanka. Some years ago, I also left Sri Lanka due to imminent threats. I and many others have benefitted from the care and support from our friends and strangers in foreign countries.

At the same time, a small number of people facing persecution in their own countries have come to Sri Lanka seeking refuge here. Christians, Ahmadi Muslims and Atheists as well as activists, journalists, bloggers and gay persons from Pakistan and Bangladesh have been amongst those who had come to Sri Lanka seeking refuge in the last few years. I have become friends and gotten to know some of them a bit better during this time. On one hand, I feel proud that they have trusted us and come to us, hoping that we would care for them in their time of need and desperation. But my predominant feeling is of sadness and shame, that we as peoples and our government has not been able to welcome them warmly and care for them.

UNHCR, Refugees and Asylum seekers in Sri Lanka

Through an agreement in 2005, the Sri Lankan government has agreed to facilitate the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate to determine refugee status of those from other countries who come to Sri Lanka and apply for refugee status.

According to UNHCR[1], there are 576 refugee claimants (asylum seekers) in Sri Lanka as of 31st August 2016, whose refugee applications are pending. These include 35 who registered in August. 439 are from Pakistan and 106 from Afghanistan, while others are from Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. The decisions on the refugee applications by UNHCR in Sri Lanka can take several years, with a longer process for those who have to appeal against rejections. In August, 10 persons were rejected refugee status by UNHCR, including 4 after an appeal.

According to the same UNHCR report, there were 649 persons in Sri Lanka who have been accepted as refugees as of 31st August 2016, including 23 recognized in August 2016.  529 were from Pakistan and 73 from Afghanistan, with others coming from Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Palestine, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Sri Lankan Government and Refugees in Sri Lanka

Despite the 2005 agreement, several refugee claimants were arrested, detained and deported in 2014. Although the new government has been more tolerant of refugees and refugee claimants, they continue to live a miserable and uncertain life in Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lankan politicians, activists and journalists are focused on issues considered “Sri Lankan”, such as economy, corruption, new constitution, transitional justice etc. We are of course quick to seek international assistance from abroad in relation to these. But sadly, our government doesn’t permit refugees recognized as needing international protection to stay in Sri Lanka, despite the number of refugees in Sri Lanka being around 0.003% of the population. This is indeed a sad indictment of our religiosity, culture, laws, policies and practice.

Hence, those recognized as refugees have to wait several years even after being recognized as refugees before a third country accepts them for permanent resettlement. According to UNHCR, 272 persons have left for USA, 11 to Canada and 1 to Sweden under UNHCR resettlement process between January to August 2016. Separately, 14 persons had left for Canada under Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR), a program separate to UNHCR, where private individuals and organizations in Canada can sponsor the resettlement of refugees. The waiting period for this too can be about 3 and half years[2].

Challenges facing Refugees in Sri Lanka

Refugee claimants in Sri Lanka don’t get any support from the government in terms of housing, food and other living expenses. UNHCR doesn’t provide any assistance to them either until and unless they are granted refugee status. Thus, they are totally depended on any of their own savings, support from relatives and friends, or other well-wishers such as NGOs and church groups. In Sri Lanka, there is hardly any such well-wishers, despite the extensive support hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan refugees and internally displaced persons have received from foreign organizations.

For those who are accepted as refugees, UNHCR provides an all inclusive amount of Rs. 10,000 (approximately USD 67) per person for a month, for accommodation, food, communication, transport etc. Families with up to one child receive Rs. 16,000 (approximately USD 107) and families with two or more children receive Rs. 22,000 (approximately USD 148). It is almost impossible to survive in Sri Lanka with such meagre amounts. There are very few groups who have shown interest to support refugees in Sri Lanka.

The government prohibits refugee claimants and refugees from engaging in employment. But in desperation, some work illegally. One refugee told me that he works as a construction worker a few days a week, earning Rs. 1,000 (approximately USD 6.70) per day. He explained difficulties in language and also due to the fact that he had never done such work in his home country. The inability to work legally has made them extremely vulnerable, with no recourse to legal remedies if they are abused by employers. Recently, an Australian volunteer initiated a livelihood project for two refugee woman and had managed to sell most of the initial products. But sustaining sales and marketing their products in Sri Lanka remains a major challenge.

Education for children is another major challenge. UNHCR covers school expenses of children between the age of 6 to 10 years. But this means that children are unable to attend school or pre-school until they are 6 and after 10. As a result, many refugee children are unable to attend school. Although some initiatives were taken in the past to organize teachers within the community, these were difficult to sustain and could not become a viable replacement for a formal school system.

Refugees have sought and received primary health care through hospitals, but when more serious health care is needed, and when external medication and medical tests are required, refugees are unable to access such services due to lack of money. Persecutions suffered in home country, prolonged periods of stay as refugee claimant / refugee, lack of basic needs and uncertainty about future has resulted in trauma for many refugees and their families, but a refugee told me recently that mental healthcare and counselling is not easily available for them.

According to the government[3], 78 (69 males and 9 females) refugees/refugee claimants are presently in detention, with the largest number of 36 being from Bangladesh. Last week, one lady told me her son had been in detention for around two years and another lady told me her husband has been in detention also around two years.

Refugees in Sri Lanka & Legal protections 

Sri Lanka is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Although Sri Lanka is a party to the UN Convention Against Torture[4] there are no specific legislative provisions in Sri Lanka to give effect to article 3 (1) of the convention, to prevent the state from returning or extraditing a person to another state when there are substantial grounds for believing that such persons would be in danger of being subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, despite this also being a well-established principle of Customary International Law.

In the Constitution, article 12(2) dealing with prohibition of discrimination excludes non-citizens. And protections from arbitrary arrest, detention and punishment provided for in article 13(1-6) in the constitution has been denied to persons arrested, detained and deported under immigration related laws under article 13 (7).

Thinking about refugees in Sri Lanka during Christmas & beyond

Reflections about a giant Christmas tree and millions of rupees being spent on Christmas celebrations and inspiration from Refugee Jesus could hopefully enable Christians to offer more care and support to refugees in coming years. Beyond Christmas, the constitutional reform process in 2017 offers Sri Lankans a good opportunity to do away with legal provisions that are discriminatory and unjust towards refugees. And to enable a more welcoming and supportive environment for refugees where their rights, dignity and wellbeing are guaranteed through our constitution, laws, policies and practice.

[1] Monthly report of Asylum Seekers & refugees by UNHCR Colombo, August 2016

[2] http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/information/times/index.asp

[3] Written Additional Information submitted by the Government of Sri Lanka on the 5th Periodic Report to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), Nov. / Dec.2016, available at http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/SessionDetails1.aspx?SessionID=1085&Lang=en

[4] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

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UN report on Sri Lanka and Freedom of Expression

First published at https://samsn.ifj.org/un-report-on-sri-lanka-and-freedom-of-expression/ on 30th September 2015

Earlier in September, Ruki Fernando was in Geneva as the reports of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released the longest page-report (251 pages) narrating the horrific stories of unlawful killings and enforced disappearances out of Sri Lanka. Having been investigated himself under the grounds of terrorism Act, one which the OHCHR report has called for reviews. Ruki accounts a personal involvement and knowledge as he writes about the new UN report, its pros and cons, and how it could affect the cases of missing Sri Lankan journalists like Subramanium Ramachandran and Prageeth Ekneligoda as well as freedom of expression at large. 

In early September, I visited the parents of Subramanium Ramachandran, a Tamil journalist from Jaffna who has been reported as missing since February 200, having been last seen at an Army checkpoint[1]. There has been nothing heard since and his parents, now in their 80s, still desire for truth and justice, but appeared to have given up hope that their son will return. From Jaffna, I went on to Geneva. There the anguish of Ramachandran’s parents and many other families and survivors, was brought alive through the reports of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)[2]. The longer 251 page report (OISL) narrates horrific stories of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual and gender based violence, attacks on civilians in places such as hospitals and churches. It highlighted reprisals against those seeking to challenge and question authorities in order to expose the truth and seek justice, which journalist Ramachandran had tried to do. It revealed denials, failures to carry out investigations and prosecutions such as in Ramachandran’s disappearance. It highlights inadequacy of domestic mechanisms and recommended a special hybrid court with international judges, lawyers, prosecutors and investigators, as well as actions by member states of the UN. The OHCHR report also called for review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act – under which I was arrested last year and I am still under investigation. A gag order restricting my freedom of expression is still there, after having given interviews to BBC, CNN another media outlets. Many other journalists, opposition politicians, clergy and activists have been arrested and detained under this draconian law, which has been and is still being used to curtail dissent and free expression. As the UN report was being released, I was sitting next to families of disappeared (journalists), including Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared Sinhalese journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, outside the meeting room in the UN, as we were not allowed to go inside. I tried my best to translate the High Commissioners remarks through the webcast to Sandya. Prageeth’s case was mentioned in both reports. Sandya had waged an unrelenting battle for truth and justice, including giving testimony to the OHCHR. She welcomed the report, emphasizing the importance of looking at the past to move forward. The OISL report detailed the killing of the Sunday Leader[3] editor Lasantha Wickramatunge, the series of attacks on the “Uthayan”[4] and the alleged detention, murder and desecration of the dead body by the Army, of the well-known LTTE female TV presenter Isaipriya. Ramachandran’s was amongst the many such cases that were not mentioned by name. The reports highlighted the widespread, systemic and repeated targeting of media known to be critical of the government over an extended period of time, insufficient protection offered to media workers who faced recurrent attacks and how this led to self-censorship and exile in fear of their lives, as well as fact that the number of journalists and media workers killed was amongst the highest in the world. The report however appears not to have dealt with the connection between free expression and broader patterns of serious violations. For example, it has not emphasized the lack of access and restrictions for independent media during the last phase of war or even after the war and how this and the general repression of freedom of expression prevented serious violations being highlighted. The UN reports also doesn’t recognize the widespread use of state and private media to discredit independent-minded journalists, press freedom activists and others critical of the government, which hampered their ability to report freely and also led to exile and self-censorship and the fact that a large proportion of journalists killed during the period were Tamils. The reports noted that “surveillance, interference and harassment of human rights defenders continued to be reported from the district level” in 2015, despite a “significant opening of space for freedom of expression at least in Colombo”. Indeed, few days before the launch of the reports, Police in North and East obstructed peaceful signature campaigns for a petition to the UN. The OISL report emphasized the importance of an environment where victims and witnesses can participate without fear in transitional justice mechanisms and that such a climate does not yet exist. Truth seeking, memorialization, prosecutions will depend on the extent to which people, particularly survivors and victims’ families feel free to express themselves without fear of reprisals. Media will have a major role to play in covering these processes independently. It will have to report the contents of the OHCHR reports, reactions or lack thereof in a responsible manner. This will depend on the extent to which media can function independently, without threats, restrictions or political interference. _________

[1] http://en.rsf.org/sri-lanka-army-said-to-be-holding-tamil-23-03-2007,21420.html

[2] News release with summary at http://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16432&LangID=E (The report is divided into two parts which are interlinked: The overarching Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights (A/HRC/30/61), available at  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A_HRC_30_61_ENG.docx and the accompanying report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (A/HRC/30/CRP.2) which can be found at  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A_HRC_30_CRP_2.docx

[3] English weekly newspaper, well known for its fearless exposes of corruption

[4] A Jaffna based Tamil newspaper with the highest circulation, which had consistently criticized alleged abuses by the government and the military against Tamils

 

Sri Lanka: The long road home for the exiled

First published at https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/ on 13th May 2015

On April 30, 2015, three Sri Lankan journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs) Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumuduni returned home after several years in exile in Nepal and short periods in India and the Maldives[1].

All three had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR in Nepal, but had renounced their refugee status and opportunity for permanent resettlement in a western country. Instead they decided to return home after the former Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was defeated at presidential elections on January 8 this year.

These Sri Lankans had previously faced death threats, arrests and detention and harassments due to their opposition to the authoritarian Rajapaksa, compelling them to flee their homeland. I had been in touch with them during the time they faced threats in Sri Lanka as well as during their exile, and I know they went only as a last resort and longed to return. But they found out that return was more difficult than being relocated. Numerous appeals made by them to Sri Lankan authorities and UNHCR didn’t yield results for more than 100 days. Appeals by Sri Lankan, Nepali and international media organizations also didn’t yield results.

As I tried to assist them in return, I found that there are very few international human rights and media freedom organizations are ready to assist journalists / HRDs to return home and continue their work, although many had come forward to assist those at risk to relocate. Only the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Frontline Defenders responded favourably to my appeals. Some didn’t reply for months and some claimed the nature of assistance required and generally the idea of assisting those in exile to return and continue work was not in their mandate. It literally took an earthquake to change the situation!

After the earthquake in Nepal, the Sri Lankan government rushed emergency assistance to Nepal and committed to bring back all Sri Lankans who were in Nepal. Sri Lankan colleagues, friends and organizations intensified their appeals and pressure on the Sri Lankan government to also get back Shantha, Jayampthi and Kumidini. Finally, they returned last week, during the early hours of April 30.

Exile is something close to my heart. I was also compelled to spend a few months in exile and when I returned, had to take complicated security precautions. I had often wondered about my complicity in assisting some of the most committed and courageous Sri Lankans to go into exile. In most of my overseas visits, I have met and spent time with those in exile and their families. I have also tried to keep in touch with families who had been left behind in Sri Lanka. In recent years, I found myself being called upon to assist exiled Pakistani HRDs coming to Sri Lanka. I often end up feeling frustrated, helpless and powerless to assist them in difficulties they face as exiles / refugees.

Hearing some wanting to return, especially friends and colleagues, has been extremely encouraging and empowering for me. But it is also frustrating to see that there is very little assistance available from the Sri Lankan government and the international community to that end. This should in no way undervalue the care, concern and support of some foreign governments, international media and human rights organizations and even individuals, who had come forward to offer protection and assistance to journalists and HRDs, including me, during very difficult and dangerous times.

Two exiled journalists / HRDs in Europe have also told me they have renounced their refugee status and are going to return to Sri Lanka in the coming months. Others have told me they may come later if the situation is conducive and safe for their return. Amongst those planning to return temporarily in the coming months is Poddala Jayantha, a well known journalist and press freedom activist who fled to India in the face of death threats. He returned to Sri Lanka and was then again compelled to leave for the US after a brutal assault and death threats as he was recovering. Poddala’s wife told me she is still very scared for his safety if he returns.

Many others do not want to return as yet, still unassured of their safety, including pending investigations or arrest warrants against them[2]. Some do not want to return for fear of further persecution or ill-health. Some don’t want to return due to having children who have now learnt languages and settled down in new countries and some want to return once they get permanent residency or citizenship in countries where they have got refugee status[3].

Of course, some may have left even when they didn’t face serious risks, and they are unlikely to return from what they may consider greener pastures. This is article is not about them.

Government invitation to return – going beyond the rhetoric

Immediately after the January 8 elections, the new government invited exiled HRDs and journalists to return.

However, an absolute pre-requisite for HRDs / journalists in exile to return is to ensure there are no continuing harassments and threats to HRDs and journalists. In this regard, some of the recent incidents reported in the media, some of which I mentioned in an article on World Press Freedom day[4], will further discourage exiled journalists and HRDs from returning home. A second factor is to indicate clear progress in ensuring justice and accountability for previous attacks, threats and violence against HRDs and journalists, including against some of those in exile who are considering return.

As I tried to assist Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini in their struggle to come home, I felt that bringing home exiled journalists / HRDs home was not a priority to the new government, and that it was more a propaganda statement. However, the return of Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini gives me more hope, that there will be government and societal support for others in exile also to return. If the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, and his government are serious and genuine, they should establish a concrete program of action to assist exiled HRDs and journalists to return without further delay. Below are some ideas that could be considered;

  1. Appointment of a focal point in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or an appropriate Ministry. The person should be someone sensitive to the situation of exiled HRDs and journalists and with capacity to deal with complications and challenges that are bound to come up. The person’s name, phone, email, skype should be made available publicly for any exiled HRD, journalist or their family and colleagues to contact, in Sinhalese, Tamil or English.
  2. The focal point should clearly clarify whether there are any pending arrest warrants or investigations against anyone intending to return and, if so, indicate details, including steps that will be taken to guarantee that such process will be carried out strictly in line with due legal process, within a specified time period.
  3. Clear instructions must be given to Sri Lankan embassies and High Commissions overseas to extend all possible assistance, advice and information to exiled HRDs and journalists who want to return.
  4. The government should initiate, support and facilitate “come and see” visits for those who want to return temporarily before making a final decision to come back. This is particularly important for those who will have to make difficult decisions about bringing back school going children and those who still have fears for safety.
  5. Some of those in exile await justice for attacks and threats against them. They need to be given clear and detailed updates on progress made so far and plans on future investigations and prosecutions. Where fresh statements, testimony is needed, and victims are unable to be physically present in Sri Lanka, possibilities such as video / skype testimony, written submissions and legal representations could be considered.
  6. Ways of offering back jobs (especially in state institutions) to those who lost them due to their free expression and activism should be explored and updates provided.
  7. A trust fund could be set up to provide financial support to those who want to come back. A significant portion must come from the Sri Lankan government. Additional funding could be solicited from well wishers, including individuals, organizations and foreign governments. The fund should be handled in a transparent and independent manner, with representation from human rights and media freedom organizations. Costs of returning and interim resettlement allowance could be amongst the needs such a fund could contribute to. The financial situation of the person returning, varying needs and whether return is permanent or temporary could be factors taken into consideration.

International and regional organizations must be proactive and creative. They should review their mandates, if necessary, in order to contribute towards actual needs of HRDs and journalists who want to return home to continue their activism and journalistic profession. Foreign governments which have adopted policies and practices, including formal guidelines on human rights defenders and freedom of expression (such as the European Union, Norway and Switzerland) could consider support for those who want to return within the framework of these guidelines and policies, including financial support and diplomatic initiatives in relation to challenges such as ones faced by Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini in Nepal.

Most of HRDs and journalists who had gone into exile have suffered terribly – before they went and after being exiled[5]. Their families have suffered. They had to give up a lot. They deserve respect and understanding for their decisions to stay away or return. If and when they want to return, they should be supported morally, politically and financially, considering specific needs and whether the return is permanent or temporary.

The Sri Lankan government must take the lead role in this. Media institutions, media freedom and human rights organizations (local and international), foreign governments, donors and all others who value human rights and media freedom, especially Sri Lankan people, should support and contribute to such efforts.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan writer and human rights / press freedom advocate. He has a court order restricting his freedom of expression in relation an ongoing investigation on anti-terror charges. His writings are available at www.rukiiiii.wordpress.com 

[1] For background, see http://groundviews.org/2015/04/29/sri-lankas-emergency-assistance-to-nepal-and-return-of-exiled-journalists/

[2] For example, see copy of arrest notice against writer, activist and academic Ratnajeevan Hoole at https://www.colombotelegraph.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Arrest-Order-Airport.pdf and https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/dilemma-of-those-in-exile-continues-frederica-jansz-speaks-out/

[3] See https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/dilemma-of-those-in-exile-continues-frederica-jansz-speaks-out/ and https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/on-behalf-of-returning-exiles/

[4] See http://groundviews.org/2015/05/03/world-press-freedom-day-2015-and-freedom-of-expression-in-sri-lanka/

[5] For more on reasons that led to exile and life in exile, and names of some journalists in exile (as of May 2013), see  http://www.ceylontoday.lk/59-31472-news-detail-exiled-from-journalism.html

Photo credit: Jayampathi Bulathsinhala for Jayampathi and Kumudu’s photos
http://www.salem-news.com/articles/july152012/shantha-wijesuriya.php for Shantha Wijesooriya’s photo

– See more at: https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/#sthash.HKC1JTET.dpuf