Refugees

ජිවිත ආරක්ෂාව පතා ශ්‍රී ලංකාවට පැමිණි සරණාගතයන්ට රැකවරණය නොදීමට තරම් ඡන්ද ප්‍රචාරණය වැදගත්ද?

First published at https://www.vikalpa.org/?p=36085 on 8th Nov. 2019

මගේ පාකිස්තාන ජාතික යෙහෙළියක පසුගිය සති අන්තයේ මට එවූ කෙටි පණිවිඩයක “කරුණාකර මගේ පවුල බේරාගන්න!” යනුවෙන් ආයාචනා කොට තිබුණි. ඇය එලෙස සඳහන් කර සිටියේ ක්‍රිස්තියානි ආගමිකයන් වීම හේතුවෙන් පීඩා විඳ, පසුව පාකිස්තානයෙන් පලා ආ, ළමයින් තුන්දෙනෙකු ඇතුලුව හත්දෙනෙකුගෙන් සමන්විත ඇගේ පවුල පිළිබඳවයි. ඔවුන් සිය ජීවිතාරක්ෂාව බලාපොරොත්තුවෙන් ඔක්තෝබර් 27 වැනි දින උදෑසන කටුනායක ජාත්‍යන්තර ගුවන්තොටුපළට ගොඩබැස්ස නමුත්, ශ්‍රී ලංකා ආගමන නිලධාරීන් විසින් රඳවා තබාගැනීමෙන් පසු, ඔක්තෝබර් 28 වැනි දින රාත්‍රියේ නැවත පිටුවහල් කරන කිරීම හේතුවෙනි.

ඒ සති අන්තයේම මට ලැබුණු තවත් කෙටි පණිවිඩයක “අපිට උදව් කළ හැකි කවුරුහරි ඉන්නවාද?” යනුවෙන් විමසා තිබුනේ පාකිස්තාන් ජාතික “අහ්මදි” ආගමික පසුබිමක් ඇති පවුලකි. ඔවුන් ද, පාකිස්තානයේ ඔවුන් ලක්වන පීඩාවලින් මිදීමේ අරමුණින් ආරක්ෂාව පතා ශ්‍රී ලංකාවට පැමිණි අය යි. නමුත් ඔවුන්ව ද නැවත පිටුවහල් කරන ලදී.

ඔවුන්ගේ බැරෑරුම් ආයාචනාවන්ට පිළිතුරු ලෙස, මම එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ සංවිධානයේ සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලයේ ශ්‍රී ලංකා කාර්යාලයේ ප්‍රධානියා ද, එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ සංවිධානයේ ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ නිත්‍ය නියෝජිත සහ මානව හිමිකම් කොමිසම ද සම්බන්ධ කරගත්තෙමි. නමුත් ඔවුන්ගේ උත්සාහයන් ද නිෂ්ඵල කරමින්, ඒ පවුල් රටින් පිටමං කරන ලදී. මිතුරු සම්බන්ධතා හරහා අගමැතිවරයා ඇතුලු ආණ්ඩු පක්ෂ මන්ත්‍රීවරුන් ද සම්බන්ධ කරගත් නමුත්, ඔවුන් කියා සිටියේ ඔවුන් ජනාධිපතිවරණ ප්‍රචාරණ ව්‍යාපාරවල කාර්යබහුල බැවින් සහ මේ අවස්ථාවේ එම පවුල්වලට උපකාර කිරීම ඔවුන්ගේ අපේක්ෂකයන්ට අවාසි සහගත විය හැකි බව යි. සිය ජීවිතවල ආරක්ෂාව පතා ශ්‍රී ලංකාවට පැමිණි පවුල් දෙකක ආයාචනාවලට වඩා ඡන්ද ප්‍රචාරණ  වැදගත් වූ බව ඉන් පැහැදිලි විය.

තාවකාලික රැඳීසිටින්නන් පිටුවහල් කිරීම ආණ්ඩුවේ ප්‍රතිපත්තිය බවත්, මේ හැර වෙනත් තාවකාලික රැඳීසිටින්නන් ද පිටුවහල් කිරීමට ලක් වූ බවත් මට දැනගන්නට ලැබිණි.

මෙලෙස පිටුවහල් කළ පවුල් දෙකම ගුවන්තොටුපළේ රඳවා තබාගත් කාලය අතරතුර තාවකාලිකව රැඳීසිටීම අපේක්ෂාවෙන් ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලයට අයැදුම් කර තිබුණි. ඔවුන්ව පිටුවහල් කිරීම, තාවකාලික රැඳීසිටින්නන්ව ඔවුන් පැමිණි රටවලට නැවත පිටුවහල් නොකිරීම පිළිබඳ ප්‍රතිපත්තිය සපුරා උල්ලංඝනය කිරීමකි.

එමෙන්ම සරණාගතයන් සහ තාවකාලිකව රැඳීසිටීම අපේක්ෂාවෙන් එන පුද්ගලයන්ට අවශ්‍ය පහසුකම් සැලසීමේ එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලයේ න්‍යායපත්‍රය ක්‍රියාත්මක කිරීමට ශ්‍රී ලංකා රජය විසින් කැප වී ක්‍රියා කළ යුතු බව පෙන්වාදෙන, 2005 දී ශ්‍රී ලංකා රජය සහ එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලය අතර ඇතිකරගත් අවබෝධතා ගිවිසුම ද, සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලය ට තාවකාලික රැඳීසිටින්නන් සඳහා “බාධා රහිත ප්‍රවේශයක්” තහවුරු කළ යුතු බව එහි විශේෂයෙන් සඳහන් කර ඇති 4 වන වගන්තිය ද, මින් බරපතල ලෙස උල්ලංඝනය වේ. කෙසේ වුවද, ඉහත කී අවස්ථාවල දී එම සරණාගතයන්ට එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලය සමඟ සම්බන්ධ වීමේ අවස්ථාව අහිමි කර තිබුණි.

ඉහත කී තාවකාලික රැඳීසිටින්නන් ගැන වූ එ.ජා. සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලයේ න්‍යායපත්‍රය සම්බන්ධ අවබෝධතා ගිවිසුමේ ලක්ෂණ 2006 වසරේ ජූනි මස 01 වැනි දින සිට බලපැවැත්වෙන පරිදි එම වසරේම මැයි මස 30 වැනි දින ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ විදේශ අමාත්‍යාංශය සහ එ.ජා. සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලය අතර අත්සන් කළ යොමුකිරීම් අනුදේශ අනුසාරයෙන් වැඩිදුරටත් විස්තර කෙරිණි. යොමුකිරීම් අනුදේශවල 5 (a) වගන්තියට අනුව, තාවකාලික රැඳීසිටීමේ අරමුණින් පැමිණෙන අය සඳහා උපදේශන සැසියක් පැවැත්වීමට එ.ජා. සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලයට අවස්ථාව ඇති අතර, ඉන්පසු ඔවුන්ව සැලකිල්ලට ලක්විය යුතු පුද්ගලයන් ලෙස ලියාපදිංචි කරගෙන, සති 2කට බලපැවැත්වෙන තාවකාලික රැඳීසිටීම සඳහා වූ සහතිකයක් නිකුත් කළ යුතු ය. යොමුකිරීම් අනුදේශවල 5 (b) වගන්තියට අනුව, ජාතික ආරක්ෂාව, මහජන සාමය සහ ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ජාත්‍යන්තර බැඳීම් යන කරුණු මත, තාවකාලික රැඳීසිටීම සඳහා වූ සහතිකය එ.ජා. සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලය විසින් නිකුත් කර එය ආගමන හා විගමන දෙපාර්තමේන්තුවට යොමුකිරීමෙන් පසු, යම් පුද්ගලයන් ශ්‍රී ලංකාවට ඇතුළත් කරගැනීමට එරෙහිව ආගමන හා විගමන දෙපාර්තමේන්තුව විසින් එ.ජා. සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලය වෙත විරෝධතා ගොනු කළ හැක. එමෙන්ම, යොමුකිරීම් අනුදේශයන්ට අනුව, මේ සිද්ධිය සම්බන්ධයෙන් සාකච්ඡා කිරීම පිණිස ආගමන – විගමන දෙපාර්තමේන්තුව, විදේශ කටයුතු අමාත්‍යාංශය සහ ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ එ.ජා. සරණාගතයන් පිළිබඳ මහකොමසාරිස් කාර්යාලය අතර රැස්වීමක් පැවැත්විය යුතුව තිබුනද, අදාළ පවුල් දෙක සම්බන්ධයෙන් නම් මේ කිසිදු ක්‍රියාවලියක් අනුගමනය කෙරුණේ නැත.

රඳවා තබාගත් කාලය අතරතුර එම  පවුල්වලට සලකා තිබුනේ ඉතා අකාරුණික ලෙසිනි. උණ රෝගයෙන් සහ උදරයේ වේදනාවෙන් පීඩා විඳිමින් සිටි අහ්මදී පවුලේ කාන්තාවක ප්‍රතිකාර සඳහා රෝහලකට ඇතුළත් කරන ලෙසට කළ ඉල්ලීම් නොසලකා හරින ලද අතර, ගුවන්තොටුපළේ දී ඇයට යම් තරමකට වෛද්‍ය ප්‍රතිකාර ලබා දී තිබුණි. අසනීපයෙන් පෙළුණු මේ කාන්තාව දරුණු ලෙස ආතතියට හා කම්පනයට පත්ව සිටි අතර, ඉංග්‍රීසි කතා කළ නොහැකි ඇයව ඇගේ සැමියාගෙන් ද වෙන්කර තබන ලද බව ද වාර්තා වේ. ගුවන්යානයට නැගීම දැඩිව ප්‍රතික්ෂේප කරමින්, තමන්ව පිටුවහල් නොකරන ලෙස ආයාචනා කළ ක්‍රිස්තියානි ආගමික පවුල  ගුවන්යානයට බලහත්කාරයෙන් ඇදගෙන ගොස් තිබුණි.

අසනීප තත්ත්වයෙන් පෙළුණු, ගුවන්යානයට නැගීම ප්‍රතික්ෂේප කළ පුද්ගලයන්ව අදාළ ගුවන් ගමන සඳහා ගුවන්යානයට නංවාගැනීම මගින් ශ්‍රී ලංකා ගුවන් සේවයේ අපසහායකත්වය ද මේ අමානුෂික දුක්ඛාන්තයට දායක වී තිබුණු බව පැහැදිලිව පෙනී යයි. ඔවුන්ව රඳවා තබාගන්නා ලද්දේ බලහත්කාරයෙන් වීම සහ ශ්‍රී ලංකා රජය විසින් පිටුවහල් කිරීම සඳහා ගුවන්යානයට නංවා තිබීම යන සාධක පසෙක ලා, රඳවා තබා සිටි දින 2ක කාලය සඳහා ඇමරිකානු ඩොලර් 220ක් ගෙවන මෙන් ද අහ්මදී පවුලට බලකර තිබුණි.

යළි පාකිස්තානයට යාමෙන් පසු, එම අහ්මදි පවුල නැවත තර්ජනවලට මුහුණ දෙමින් සිටියි. ඔවුන්ට අනුව, ප්‍රදේශයේ සුන්නි මුස්ලිම් කණ්ඩායමක්, රට හැරදා යාමට ඔවුන් ගත් උත්සාහය ගැන පවසමින්, ඔවුන්ට පාඩමක් ලෙස ආගමික අපහාස චෝදනා මත රැඳවුම් භාරයට ගන්නා බවටත්, ඔවුන්ගේ දේපළ බලහත්කාරයෙන් පවරාගන්නා බවටත් ඔවුන්ට තර්ජනය කර තිබේ.

තාවකාලික රැඳීසිටින්නන් සහ සරණාගතයන් ශ්‍රී ලංකාවට පැමිණෙන්නේ ඇමරිකා එක්සත් ජනපදය, කැනඩාව වැනි රටවල ස්ථිර පදිංචිය ලැබෙනතුරු මෙහි වාසය කිරීමට යි. ශ්‍රී ලංකාව තුළ ඔවුන්ගේ වාසය ද ඉතා අසීරු ය.රජය විසින් ඔවුන්ට මෙහි රැකියා කිරීම තහනම් කර ඇති අතර, ළමුන් සඳහා අධ්‍යාපනය ලැබීමේ පහසුකම් හෝ ආහාර, නවාතැන් පහසුකම් ද ලබාදෙන්නේ නැත. මේ පිරිසෙන් 2/3කට වැඩි ප්‍රමාණයක් පාස්කු ඉරිදා බෝම්බ ප්‍රහාරවලින් පසු රටෙන් පිටමං කළ අතර, සමහරු පහරදීම් සහ තර්ජනය කිරීම්වලට ද ලක්විය. කෙසේ වුවත්, ඒ තත්ත්වය පසුගිය මාස කිහිපයේ දී ක්‍රම ක්‍රමයෙන් හොඳ අතට හැරෙමින් පවතියි.

එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ සංවිධානය 2014 වසරේ දී ශ්‍රී ලංකාවෙන් සරණාගතයන් පිටුවහල් කිරීමට විරුද්ධ විය. ඔවුන් දැන් කළ යුත්තේ ද එය යි. එමෙන්ම පෙර කී අවබෝධතා ගිවිසුම, යොමුකිරීම් අනුදේශ සහ සරණාගතයන්ව ඔවුන් පැමිණි රටවලට නැවත පිටුවහල් නොකිරීම පිළිබඳ ප්‍රතිපත්තිය යනාදියට නිසි ගරුත්වය ලබාදෙමින් කටයුතු කිරීමට ද ශ්‍රී ලංකා රජය පෙළඹවිය යුතු ය. ඡන්දදායකයන් නොවූවත්, සරණාගතයන් ද මනුෂ්‍යයෝ ය. දේශපාලකයන්, දේශපාලන පක්ෂ සහ ශ්‍රී ලාංකික පුරවැසියන් ලෙස අපි ඔවුන්ව ප්‍රතික්ෂේප කළ නොයුතු අතර, තාවකාලිකව මෙහි රැඳීසිටීමේ අරමුණින් මෙහි පැමිණෙන ඔවුන්ව සාදරයෙන් පිළිගෙන, අනුග්‍රහය සහ රැකවරණය සලසා දිය යුතු ය.

සංස්කාරක සටහන : ලියුම්කරු විසින් 2019 ඔක්තෝබර් 30 වැනි දා මුල්වරට Groundviews වෙබ් අඩවියේ මෙම ලිපිය ‘Sri Lanka resumes deportation of asylum seekers’ යනුවෙන් ඉංග්‍රිසි භාෂාවෙන් පළ කොට තිබේ.

Sri Lanka resumes deportation of asylum seekers

First published at https://groundviews.org/2019/10/31/sri-lanka-resumes-deportation-of-asylum-seekers/ on 31st October 2019

“Please save my family, please” was the message I received from a Pakistani friend last weekend. It was about her family of seven, including 3 children, who had fled Pakistan after facing persecution as Christians. They had arrived at the Katunayake airport on the morning of 25th October, seeking safety, but was detained and deported back by the Sri Lankan Immigration on the night of 28th October.

“Can anybody help us” was also a message I got in the weekend – from a Pakistani Ahmadi family, who had also fled persecution in Pakistan and come to Sri Lanka seeking safety. But they too were deported back.

In response to their desperate appeals, I contacted the head of UNHCR in Sri Lanka, the UN Resident Coordinator, Human Rights Commission. Despite their efforts, the two families were deported. Through friends, I also contacted government politicians, including the Prime Minister. The answers I got was they are busy with election campaigns, and helping these families might harm prospects of their candidates. Clearly, electoral campaigners mattered more than desperate pleas of two families who had come to Sri Lanka to save their lives.

I was also informed that the policy of the government is to deport asylum seekers. That there have been others who have been deported.

Both these families deported had applied for asylum to UNHCR Sri Lanka while being detained at the airport. Deporting them is a blatant violation of the principle of non-refoulment.

It is also a violation of the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the government of Sri Lanka and UNHCR, where the government has committed to facilitate UNHCR’s mandate in favour of asylum seekers and refugees, with article 4 of the MoU assuring UNHCR of “unimpeded access” towards asylum seekers. But in these cases, the asylum seekers were denied access to UNHCR.

Aspects in this MoU related to UNHCR’s mandate on asylum seekers was further elaborated through a Terms of Reference (ToR) signed between the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and UNHCR on 30th May 2006 and effective from 1st June 2006. Article 5 (a) of the ToR provides for UNHCR to have a counselling session with asylum seekers, and then register asylum seekers as persons of concern and issue temporary asylum certificates valid for 2 weeks. Article 5 (b) of the ToR provides that Department of Immigration and Emigration may submit any objections regarding admission of any individuals to Sri Lanka to UNHCR, taking into consideration national security, public order or Sri Lanka’s international commitments, after the temporary asylum certificate has been issued and submitted to them by UNHCR. In this case, based on the ToR, there has to be a meeting between the Immigration, MFA and UNHCR to discuss the case. None of these procedures were followed in terms of the above two families.

The families were treated very badly while in detention. The Ahmadi lady had fever and stomach pains and were denied requests to be admitted to hospital, though some medical care was provided at the airport. This sick lady, who was depressed, severely traumatized and unable to communicate in English, was separated from her husband. The Christian family, was forcibly dragged to the flight, even as they were pleading not to be deported and refusing to board a flight.

Sri Lankan Airlines appears to be also complicit in this inhuman tragedy, boarding persons who are sick and refusing to be on the flight. They had compelled the Ahmadi families to pay USD 220 for the two days they were detained – despite the fact that they were forcibly detained and put on a flight back from the Sri Lankan government.

Since going back, the Ahmadi family had faced fresh threats. According to them, a local Sunni Muslim mob had referred to their attempt to leave the country and told they will be taught a lesson, including getting them detained on blasphemy charges and grabbing their properties.

Asylum seekers and refugees come to live in Sri Lanka temporary, till they find permanent resettlement in countries like USA and Canada. Their lives in Sri Lanka are also difficult – the government doesn’t allow them to work and don’t provide education for children, food or housing. About 2/3 were evicted after the Easter Sunday bombings, some were beaten and threatened, and its only in last few months they are slowly recovering.

In 2014, the UN opposed the deportation of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. They should do the same now, and try persuade the Sri Lankan government to honour the MOU, TOR and principle of non-refoulment. Asylum seekers and refugees are not voters, but they are human beings. Politicians, political parties and as Sri Lankan citizens, we must not turn our backs on them, but welcome them, support and care for them when they come to us seeking temporary refuge.

 

World Refugee Day and Refugees in Sri Lanka

First published at https://groundviews.org/2019/06/19/world-refugee-day-and-refugees-in-sri-lanka/ on 19th June 2019

June 20 is World Refugee Day, coinciding with a time Sri Lanka faces its most serious refugee crisis since 2014.

Though not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Sri Lanka is bound by international customary law and human rights treaty obligations – such as the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), to which Sri Lanka is a party to – to respect principle of non-refoulment, which prohibits the return of persons to a country when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person or persons would be at risk of harm. This includes risks to right to life, death penalty, torture, sexual and gender based violence, female genital mutilation, prolonged solitary confinement, denial of fair trial, degrading living conditions, lack of medical treatment etc.

The Sri Lankan government has an agreement with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which allows UNHCR to register those seeking refugee status and carry out refugee status determination. According to UNHCR statistics, there are 862 refugees (those who have been granted refugee status) and 829 asylum seekers (those whose refugee applications are pending) in Sri Lanka as of April 30, 2019. Those who have been granted refugee status await permanent resettlement in another country. Between January to April 2019, 26 refugees had departed to Canada and United States of America for permanent resettlement, but I’m also aware of several refugees who have been stuck in Sri Lanka for several years despite being granted refugee status. These refugees come from 15 countries in South Asia, Middle East and Africa. 1,362 were from Pakistan and 200 from Afghanistan. Others were from Bangladesh, Eritrea, India, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Nigeria, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

The majority are Ahmadiyya Muslims, while there are also significant number of Christians and other Muslims. These communities have suffered threats, attacks and killings by extremist groups, with little to no protection from the State against these attacks. A few persecuted human rights activists, journalists, bloggers, atheists and gay persons have also sought refuge in Sri Lanka.

Life as refugees in Sri Lanka

UNHCR provides those recognised as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food to live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves, with their savings and contributions from relatives, friends and other well-wishers. Among the refugees I have met are medical doctors, journalists, lawyers, government officials, teachers, graphic designers and beauticians. But the Sri Lankan government doesn’t allow refugees to be employed legally, denying them the opportunity to be gainfully occupied and earn an income to cover the costs of their temporary stay in Sri Lanka. In desperation, some refugees had worked in shops and as construction workers, but I have been told several instances where employers had refused to pay them the agreed amounts and they were helpless in claiming what was due to them.  They end up contributing to the Sri Lankan economy by renting our rooms, houses, buying things from our shops, and spending on three-wheelers and buses.

Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop skills that they could utilise in seeking employment during their stay in Sri Lanka (if allowed to do so) and their countries of resettlement. Government hospitals provide free healthcare, but sometimes refugees have faced hostility in hospitals. There is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to them, despite the unfamiliar circumstances they have been compelled to live in, and the trauma they have faced due to the violence and discrimination that had compelled them to leave. Despite the large number of abandoned government buildings across the country, the government doesn’t provide housing. Some landlords have been reluctant to rent rooms and houses to refugees, while others have exploited their vulnerability by charging higher prices. The children are not included in the government’s “free education” policy, and thus, many children are unable to go to school. Refugees are also not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi.

Reprisals and hostility against refugees after Easter Sunday bombings

Along with Sri Lankan Muslims, the small refugee and asylum seeker population, especially around Negombo, bore the brunt of reprisals and hostilities after the Easter Sunday bombings. Some refugees were subjected to physical violence and others faced threats of violence as about two third of the refugee population were evicted from the rooms and houses they were renting. Some house owners were sympathetic towards refugees, but were threatened by mobs and neighbours to evict the refugee families. The majority of those evicted were Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslims and they sought shelter in two Ahmadi mosques. Others were accommodated in the garage and verandas of the Negombo Police station. Conditions in these three camps during April and May were unbearable, with many including children falling ill, due to severe congestion, lack of shelter in sun and rain, lack of toilets and sanitation facilities. They have been used to cooking for themselves and some found it difficult to adjust to Sri Lankan style food that was provided.

Appeals to the government, Christian churches, Buddhist temples, NGOs and private individuals to find better accommodation didn’t bring positive results. Two facilities run by churches and an NGO respectively were offered in April, but fell apart due to protests by Buddhist monks and others. The Governors of the Southern and Northern provinces offered to renovate facilities in their provinces, and finally, more than a hundred refugees, including children, were moved to a camp in the North in two phases, closing down the camp at the Negombo police station.  The Negombo police must be commended for accommodating, supporting and protecting about 170 refugees, by sharing their minimal facilities.

Many refugees had to leave behind their meagre belongings and basic essentials including clothes, medicine and children’s supplies. Some kind house owners had kept these safely till they could be collected, but I also heard and personally experienced situations where some house owners had acquired some of the properties, sold or disposed them.

Refugees and asylum seekers were also evicted in Kandy and suburbs of Colombo, through written and verbal notices, largely due to the instigation by police and neighbours. It took huge efforts for them to find new accommodation.

Now, nearly two months since the Easter Sunday bombings, life in the three camps remains difficult despite efforts by UNHCR, some government agencies, NGOs and well-wishers. The population in two Ahmadi mosques have decreased from about 1000 to about 700, with some having returned to their original rooms and houses and some having left for Canada and USA. During a visit to one of the camps earlier this week, I observed that facilities, like temporary accommodation and toilets, have improved compared to late April, but families have been separated for nearly two months now at two of the camps, as there are no facilities for them to stay together. Those in the camp in the North are not allowed to move out or have visitors.  In addition to the three camps, some refugees are also detained in an overcrowded detention facility.

In May, a refugee family with 4 children, who had been evicted from their home in a suburb of Colombo, travelled to Jaffna at the invitation of a host family there. The host family registered them at the police on the day of the arrival, but the next day, senior government officials opposed this. The distraught and exhausted refugee family was compelled to travel back to Colombo. But over the last month, a few Sri Lankan families and one church have come forward to host refugee families and some have started to rent their rooms and houses to refugees again.

Way forward

Supporting and protecting people terrorised in their own countries is a global challenge. Compared to about 28.5 million refugees worldwide, out of which Pakistan is hosting about 1.4 million and Bangladesh is hosting about 900,000, we have a relatively tiny refugee population of about 1700 to care for. About a million Sri Lankans have benefited and still benefit from international protection, though they also face challenges in the countries they are seeking refuge and when they try to return to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan politicians, religious leaders, media and civil society must try to raise awareness about refugees in Sri Lanka. That refugees, like citizens and all other foreign visitors coming for tourism, business, studies, sports etc., are subject to the laws of the land. That refugees have rarely been accused of criminal charges. That most refugees coming to Sri Lanka are minorities in their own countries who have been terrorised and had to flee to save their lives. That they are here temporarily till they find permanent resettlement. That they contribute to the Sri Lankan economy and don’t receive even basic assistance like housing, food, education, transport from the Sri Lankan government.

We need to extend maximum support to UNHCR to carry out their mandate and also develop an independent and comprehensive national mechanism to assess well-founded fears of refugees coming to us. We need to consider offering basic needs such as housing, food, employment, education and healthcare to refugees staying with us temporarily and in the long term, consider offering permanent resettlement to at least few refugee families.

We should never stoop so low as to deport, stop or discourage people terrorised in other countries coming to us seeking care, support and protection temporarily. We must welcome them warmly and feel proud that they have chosen to come to us in their time of trouble and desperation. Responding sensitively and humanely to refugees – our brothers and sisters – is a test of our laws, politics, spirituality and conscience.

Refugee crisis in Sri Lanka after the Easter Sunday bombings

First published at https://groundviews.org/2019/05/04/refugee-crisis-in-sri-lanka-after-the-east-sunday-bombings/ on 4th May 2019

“Pakistanis a country where suicide bombings happen on a regular basis, mobs gather and kill minorities and people who think differently, houses and settlements are attacked, people are forced to leave their houses. I left my house once before in the state of fear that I could be killed or imprisoned because an allegation of blasphemy was brought against me. I was scared, sleepless, hungry and unable to go back to my home, all was lost in just matter of a few hours. In fear and extreme shock my wife and I left Pakistan, came to Sri Lanka. We left friends family and relatives, jobs and house behind. But now Sri Lanka has become the same, we have been forced out of the house that we lived in, today at noon a mob gathered outside our house and few people were violently kicking at the door. A person pushed me, slapped me and grabbed me by the collar.  There were two policemen behind him, they said ‘you have to go to the police station” Pakistani Refugee, standing outside the Negombo Police Station on 27 April 2019.

A Pakistani man who had been living in a rented house on Sea street in Negombo, told me how a mob had come to the house where he lived with his wife and 2 young children aged 4 and 2 and half years, kicked him and threatened to kill him, following which his house owner had forced him to leave with his family. A Pakistani woman narrated how a mob came to her house on Lewis Place in Negombo and threatened to attack her family unless they left the house immediately. Many left with only the clothes they were wearing, or with meager belongings, leaving behind vital document and basic essentials including clothes, medicine and children’s supplies.

Refugees to Sri Lanka become refugees within Sri Lanka

In the last two weeks, after the Easter Sunday bombings, I have heard many such stories from refugees around Negombo. House owners also told me mobs had threatened to destroy their houses if they hosted refugee families. This led to about 1200 refugees and asylum seekers (asylum seekers are those whose refugee applications are pending) being compelled to live in three make-shift refugee camps (two Ahmadi mosques and the Negombo Police station) in absolutely horrible conditions, with minimum toilet facilities and lack of water. Many are compelled to sleep in sitting positions due to lack of space.

The situation at the two mosques, both of which are not equipped to accommodate overnight stays, are terrible, with rain in the last few days making the situation worse. Both mosques are guarded by the police and army, with some locals, including Buddhist Monks, demanding them to be evicted from the largest refugee camp hosting about 700.

At the Negombo police station, about 175 including about 40 children live in a garage with no walls, on rough floor, sharing a couple of toilets that resident policemen had been using. The police had been helpful, kind and generous to share their meagre facilities, but the situation has become unbearable to the refugees and even the police.

Desperate appeals were made to organizations and churches to accommodate the refugees living at the Negombo police station in a more suitable place with better facilities. Many were scared to open their doors, but a few dared. However successive attempts to relocate them from the police station have failed due to mob violence and threats. When a group was taken to a church centre, local groups led by Buddhist Monks protested, police couldn’t assure security and they were brought back to the Negombo police. When a group of women and children were being taken to another institution, news was received of protests led by a local politician and the bus turned back, bringing them back to Negombo police. On two other occasions, they were loaded into buses to be taken to a pre-booked hostel in Colombo and a school in Negombo, but these two also failed due to lack of security assurances from police.

Re-displacement around Colombo

Negombo is not the only area refugees face hostilities and evictions since the Easter bombings. Four Afghan refugees living in a house near Kandy were evicted by the owner last week, after inquiries by a local gang followed by police raids, despite the raids not finding anything incriminating. Even the guest house they moved to is trying to evict them. An Afghan refugee was evicted from the house he was staying this week in Dehiwela. Another Afghan refugee living in Ratmalana, was called “enemy” by a neighbour, who had threatened to beat him. He and his family lives in fear, mostly holed up inside the house they rent. In Moratuwa, the house owner had asked an Afghan refugee family with children to leave after the police expressed doubts about their refugee documents.

Many guesthouse owners had refused to accept Afghan and Pakistani refugees, despite them having legal documents to reside in Sri Lanka. Muslim house owners are been particularly afraid, especially of inciting further hostilities from local people.

According to an Afghan refugee in Panadura, “previously people used to smile, now they view us with suspicion and hostility. This makes us fearful of travel. When I was looking to rent a room, the guest house owner shouted that ‘all Muslims are terrorists’. I tried to find other guest houses, but no one is willing to accommodate.’

Who are these refugees?

These refugees and asylum seekers have come to Sri Lanka seeking protection due to persecution they faced in their own countries. Some are Ahmadiya and Shia Muslims from the Hazara ethnic community, while others are Christians, all persecuted by Muslim groups. They belong to religious minorities who have suffered threats, attacks and killings by extremist groups, with little or no protection from the State against these attacks. Many refugees here are those persecuted under Pakistani law for blasphemy which is an offence punishable with death. A few persecuted human rights activists, journalists, bloggers, atheists and gay persons have also sought refuge in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and there are no national procedures for the granting of refugee status. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), based on a 2005 agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka, registers asylum seekers and carries out refugee status determination. Successive Sri Lankan governments have welcomed them to stay in the country temporarily, till they find permanent resettlement in other countries. As of 31st March 2019, there were 851 persons who have been accepted as refugees awaiting resettlement in other countries and another 819 whose refugee applications are pending (asylum seekers)[1]. They come from about 15 countries, with majority of 1341 being are from Pakistan and 201 from Afghanistan[2]. There are also several whose applications for permanent resettlement in Canada is being processed. In the first three months of 2019, 20 refugees had departed for permanent resettlement[3]. The long application and review process, with several years intervening between application, interview and decision on refugee status being communicated, results in increasing uncertainty and fear for those seeking asylum. While the current crisis was unforeseen, systemic deficiencies have and continue to heighten vulnerabilities for refugees.

Refugee life in Sri Lanka before the Easter attacks

UNHCR provides those recognized as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food and live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves. Few Muslim and Church groups and NGOs have been supporting them with education, accommodation, food, healthcare etc. But these have been very minimal and only few have benefited.

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t ensure the right to housing, food, education, healthcare or legal employment for asylum seekers and refugees. No permanent or even transitional shelter is provided by the government. They are not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi, even though this could be done fairly easily and at little extra cost. The treatment and services available to asylum seekers and refugees at public hospitals and clinics is often lacking in terms of care and compassion. In some cases, the provision of treatment is at the discretion of authorities and asylum seekers and refugees who seek medical care are made to feel like they are seeking a privilege, rather than exercising a basic right. Despite being forced to flee having experienced and witnessing atrocities, violence and discrimination, anxieties about family and friends they left behind and finding themselves in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment, there is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to asylum seekers and refugees.

Although the Sri Lankan Constitution guarantees “assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels”, this is not extended to refugee and asylum children. The refugee children between 6 – 10 years have access to schooling through UNHCR’s support, but children of secondary school age, do not have any access to formal schooling. Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the many government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop vocational skills that they could utilize in seeking employment and living independently in Sri Lanka and their countries of permanent resettlement.

Why fear refugees?

Hopes of temporary respite for the crisis arose when the Governors of the Northern and Southern provinces came forward to host refugees. This has been communicated to the President, UN and other officials and many discussions have been held. But the around 1200 refugees still remain in the three camps, despite the worsening situation. A few Northern Tamil politicians are reported to have opposed hosting refugees in the North, but refreshingly, other Tamil politicians, civil society activists and clergy in North have welcomed refugees. It is now up to the central government to consider these generous offers and finalize interim arrangements to resolve this crisis, respecting rights and dignity, including freedom of movement. It is essential that UNHCR presence is strengthened and the UN takes a proactive role, with space for civil society and religious leaders. In view of new threats to refugees, foreign governments must also come forward to expedite offering permanent resettlement to those who have been granted refugee status by UNHCR.

As stated earlier, much of the fear and anger towards refugees stems from a lack of awareness and understanding. Like all Sri Lankans, tourists and other foreign nationals, refugees are bound by the laws of the land. I’ve heard of foreign tourists being arrested on suspicion of being involved in serious crimes such as drug peddling, but I have not heard such reports about refugees.

Few in Sri Lanka seem aware of religious or ethnic minorities living in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan and the crimes committed against them, including by Muslims. This ignorance, coupled with hostility and suspicions towards Muslims following the Easter attacks has led to wave of reprisals against refugees in Sri Lanka.

Caring for people terrorized in their own countries fleeing to other countries is a global challenge. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans have sought and received international protection and support in numerous countries. Compared to about 28.5 million refugees worldwide, out of which Pakistan is hosting about 1.4 million and Bangladesh is hosting about 900,000, we have very tiny refugee population of less than 1700 to care for.[4]

We as Sri Lankans should feel proud that refugees terrorized in their own countries, have trusted us and come to us, hoping that we would welcome them, care for them, support them and protect them, during a temporary stay of few years. We must not fail them, we must open our hearts and doors to them.

[1]UNHCR monthly update of 31stMarch 2019

[2]Ibid

[3]Ibid

[4]https://www.unhcr.org/en-lk/figures-at-a-glance.html,https://data2.unhcr.org/en/country/pakand http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20Bangladesh%20Operational%20Update%20-%20March%202019.pdf

Police garage turns into a refugee camp

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/04/28/news-features/police-garage-turns-refugee-camp on 28th April 2019

The Negombo Police was a strange sight last week with children, women and men camped out in the garage, on rough floor with no walls and proper sanitation facilities. They were there as they had no other safe place to go.

These were some of the refugees and asylum seekers, who had fled persecution in their own countries. They are not allowed to work, their children don’t go to school, but they are allowed to live here temporarily, based on an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the aftermath of Easter Sunday bombings, mobs in Negombo had broken into some of their residences and beaten up some of them. People who had been letting out rooms had also been pressured to ask the refugees to leave immediately. With no place to go, they had to rush to the Negombo Police station.

Appeals were made to various church institutions and other groups to host these refugees. Most were scared and declined. A few dared, but angry local mobs turned up and insisted that the refugees should be evicted. On one occasion, the mob had arrived even before the refugees got there. The police and the armed forces couldn’t assure them safety, so they were displaced yet again.

It was from one such shelter that two buses with tired, scared faces arrived at the Negombo Police station on Friday evening. But the police refused to host them, didn’t allow them to get down from the buses and insisted we take them ‘somewhere else’. A few of us including a Catholic nun and three priests tried to make the police understand that they have no homes to go to and insisted we can only move them with an assurance of safety. Appeals were made on the phone to government officials. Finally, the police agreed to let them stay the night, without a solution as to where they would have to stay in the days, weeks and months to come.

Some of the house owners who had been compelled to evict these refugees, had visited them to see how they were faring and with some bringing food. The police had allowed them to use their washrooms providing them sanitation facilities. A policeman on night duty had given up his fan to provide some comfort to children not falling asleep and another had made milk for crying children. But how long can an already over-streched police host a refugee camp?

It’s the duty of the State with the UNHCR, to protect and support this vulnerable community, who had suffered so much. If Negombo and the sourroundings are not safe, other options should be considered.

As we grieve the lives lost in the bombings, support the injured and their families, we must also stand in solidarity with asylum seekers and refugees. It’s an opportunity to extend social and political hospitality to those in need and most vulnerable. It is not enough to open our hearts, we must open our doors as well.

World Refugees Day and refugees from and to Sri Lanka

First published on 21st June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/21/world-refugees-day-and-refugees-from-and-to-sri-lanka/

20th June is World Refugee Day. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced globally. I have heard that close to one million Sri Lankans have fled the country to escape violence, war and persecution. I had met few of them in different countries and been struck by their differences in their experiences, challenges, fears and aspirations.

It was alarming to hear that some had fled the country since 2015, including this year. Acording to the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP)[1], they have taken testimonies from 57 Sri Lankan Tamils who had sought asylum in European countries after having faced abduction, illegal detention, torture and/or sexual violence at the hands of intelligence and security officers under the Sirisena government in 2015-2017. There have been many more who had sought asylum during previous governments.

Early this year, in Thailand, I met a Sri Lankan family who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR. They were barely surviving, with no possibility to be employed legally, struggling to pay for a room to stay in, find food to eat and unable to send children to school. But they were still scared to return home. In 2016, a Tamil journalist / human rights activist who had decided to return to Sri Lanka after going into exile, was detained at the airport and questioned about his activism for more than 24 hours, before being produced before a magistrate and released on bail. His family members were subjected to questioning afterwards.

I also know a few Sinhalese and Tamil journalists and activists who had sought refuge abroad under Rajapakse regime, but had returned to Sri Lanka since 2015. Some had come permanently and some have been visiting regularly. Some had given up benefits of refugee status and possibility to obtain citizenship in a European country which had offered them refugee status. They had not faced any harassments at the airport or afterwards.

Despite rhetoric of inviting those who went into exile to return, the new Sri Lankan government has done very little to guarantee security and assist those who had requested for assistance to return home after being recognized by UNHCR as refugees. In 2015, it literarily took an earthquake for the government to take action to ensure the return of two Sri Lankans from Nepal, who had been granted refugee status by UNHCR.[2]  For around a year, the Sri Lankan government had not assisted two other activists also in Nepal who have been recognized as refugees by UNHCR, and had made repeated requests for the government to intervene to bring them home.

Returning Refugees from India

A significant number of Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils from North and East, had fled to India during decades of war, living as refugees. More than 11,000 are estimated to have returned to Sri Lanka. Despite some limited support from the Sri Lankan government, those who want to return face multiple challenges and the majority of refugees remain in camps in India, uncertain of their future. Like some of those mentioned above, they also fear intrusive visits and questioning from Sri Lankan authorities.

A major challenge they face is lack of legal documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates and the National Identity Cards (NIC). The lack of supportive documents[3] of parents has been a major hurdle for children to obtain consular birth certificates and subsequently Sri Lankan citizenship. Many returnees face difficulties in obtaining their citizenship, including heavy penalties and complex documentation requirements. A waiver of penalties is available only to those who possess a return letter from UNHCR, but not to those who return spontaneously of their own accord. Difficulties in obtaining consular documents increase the risk of refugees falling into the category of stateless persons. The inability of refugees born in camps to obtain citizenship (through the Sri Lankan consular process) before return causes delays in their ability to obtain other documents in Sri Lanka after return, such as the NIC, passports, and driving licences. This results in further delays in returnees claiming rights and reintegration benefits, including social welfare schemes, opening bank accounts, finding employment, and enrolling in educational institutions.

Many returnees have ended up being homeless and landless. Some of the refugee’s lands and houses have been occupied by others and refugees have been compelled to live with friends and relatives, in welfare centres or spend their meagre resources on rent. Loss of land documents, land disputes over boundaries and the inability to locate and demarcate land have also been challenges. Some returnees who are able to recover their land are unable to use it for resettlement due to the land being overgrown by jungle growth and wild animals. There are no governmental programmes to provide temporary or transitional shelter.

Deprivation of agricultural land, inability to get fishing licences, and requirement of compulsory guarantors for loans makes it difficult to restart livelihoods. They also face difficulties in finding employment opportunities in both the private and public sector, with limited support schemes available. There are no special employment schemes.

Non-recognition of educational qualifications, including high school / secondary school, degrees and diplomas, obtained overseas while living as refugees, has posed challenges for pursuing higher education and career opportunities. Obtaining equivalent certificates (to recognise certificates from foreign institutions) places an additional financial and procedural burden on returning refugees who are already struggling with very limited resources.[4]

Refugees and Asylum seekers coming to Si Lanka

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. There are no national procedures for the granting of refugee status. Refugees who come to Sri Lanka are left to the care and protection of UNHCR, which, in agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka, registers asylum seekers and carries out refugee status determination.

About 75% of asylum seekers and refugees in Sri Lanka are from Pakistan and about 15% from Afghanistan. Visa restrictions for these nationals to enter Sri Lanka remain in place and some asylum seekers are turned away at the airport and sent back to the conditions they sought to flee, without an opportunity to present their case or right of appeal, violating the customary law principle of non-refoulement. As of end of 2016, there were 604 refugees who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR and 576 whose applications were pending at UNHCR in Sri Lanka. In addition to Pakistanis and Afghans, others were from countries such as Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine and Yemen. Asylum seekers and refugees live in fear of random and unannounced intrusion into their lives by the police and immigration authorities, and the threat of deportation.

UNHCR provides those recognized as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food and live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves. Few religious groups (Muslim and Christian) and NGOs have been supporting them with education, accommodation, food, healthcare etc. But these have been very minimal, often adhoc and only few have benefited.

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t ensure rights of housing, food, education, healthcare or legal employment to asylum seekers and refugees. No permanent or even transitional shelter is provided by the government. Due to hostility, mistrust, and negative stereotyping from the local community, and threats from police and immigration officers, landlords have been reluctant to rent houses and are known to take advantage of their vulnerable situation and charge unreasonable rental rates and advance payments.

They are not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi, even though this could be done fairly easily and at little extra cost. The treatment and services available to asylum seekers and refugees at public hospitals and clinics is often lacking in terms of care and compassion. In some cases, the provision of treatment is at the discretion of authorities and asylum seekers and refugees who seek medical care are made to feel like they are seeking a privilege, rather than exercising a basic right. Despite having had to flee after experiencing and witnessing atrocities, violence and discrimination, anxieties about family and friends they had left behind and finding themselves in unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment, there is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to asylum seekers and refugees.

Although Sri Lankan constitution guarantees “assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels”, this is not extended to refugee and asylum children. As of March 2017, there were 106 children of primary school age, of whom 46 were asylum-seekers and 60 are refugees. The refugee children between 6 – 10 years have access to schooling through UNHCR’s support, but a further 167 children of secondary school age, of whom 71 are asylum-seekers and 96 are refugees, do not have any access to formal schooling. Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the many government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop vocational skills that they could utilise in seeking employment and living independently in their countries of resettlement.

Long way to go

After the end of the war in 2009 and change of government in 2015, some Sri Lankan refugees try to return back, amidst security concerns and minimal assistance from the government. At the same time, other Sri Lankans continue to flee from persecution. And Sri Lanka is failing to provide humane care to asylum seekers coming from other countries, in line with international standards.  Our government and as people, we still have a long way to go towards being a compassionate society where it’s citizens don’t have to flee from persecution and fear and welcome those fleeing from persecution in their countries and coming to us for care and refuge.

[1] http://www.itjpsl.com/

[2] https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/

[3] Such as birth certificates of parents, marriage certificates, grandparents’ birth certificates, parents’ consular birth certificates

[4] The expenses include travelling to and from Colombo and the fees for conversions, such as Rs 35,000 for National Apprentice and Industrial Training certificates and Rs 2,500 for university degrees.

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