Refugees

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.

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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