Asylum seekers & refugees in Sri Lanka: rubbish to throw out or persons to take care of?

Photo courtesy The Economist

When asylum seekers come to Sri Lanka, I feel proud to be a Sri Lankan. Because they have thought we, Sri Lankans, would show our love, care and concern for them and protect them at the time they needed it most – such as when face death threats and can’t practice their religion. Because they thought they could find hope for a safer and dignified life here with us, at least for a short time. Because they would have thought that our spiritual, religious and cultural values will make us welcome them, not throw them out in their hour of desperation. That our country would have laws, policies that would be sympathetic to their plight.

But today, our government is throwing out desperate people that have to come to us seeking love, care and protection temporarily – not even permanently. Along with them, the government is also throwing out the human, spiritual values these desperate people thought Sri Lankans had. Deportations of asylum seekers also violates customary international law which requires all countries not to violate the principle of “non-refoulement (no forced returns) to countries where people face imminent risks. It violates article 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the Sri Lankan government has ratified.

Amongst the asylum seekers living in fear of arrest, detention and deportation is a good friend of mine from Pakistan. They have been generous even as asylum seekers and I have enjoyed the Biryani they offered me in the tiny single room they live in now. I have enjoyed the cheerful company of his two school going, young, beautiful daughters. My friend had come here with his wife and two children because he and his young daughters were threatened with death. He had told me about the things they left behind and miss dearly. Especially friends and family. The pain of not having been able to go for his father’s funeral. From my interactions with Pakistani asylum seekers last few months, I know that many others have come for similar reasons. It would have not been easy to leave so much behind. I also know from my friends and colleagues in Pakistan, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR), that life is terribly insecure for religious minorities in Pakistan, especially Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shia Muslims and Christians. According to UNHCR, they may need international protection and require particularly careful examination of their asylum claims.

The UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva has expressed alarm that recent deportations of asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka are growing in size and scope despite international calls to stop sending them back to a place where their lives could be in danger. According to UNHCR, 36 Pakistanis had been deported between 1st and 5th August and this number has grown to 88 by 12th August. UNHCR further says that while only men were detained and deported initially, now whole families are being deported, and that 11 women and 8 children have been deported so far. That a pregnant woman had been left behind and her husband deported. I heard one story that a women who was seven and half months pregnant was told to say she was five and half months pregnant, in order for the airline to accept her to be deported.

UNHCR has also said that some of the latest deportees had their passports and asylum-seeker certificates seized last week, told to go to Colombo airport, where they were placed on flights to Pakistan against their will.

According to UNHCR, there are 157 asylum seekers (84 Pakistanis, 71 Afghans and 2 Iranians) detained in Sri Lanka as of 12th August. They face imminent deportation. Some may have been deported and others being deported even as I write this.

The Lawyers Collective in Sri Lanka has said that the laws under which the arrests and detention has happened is not clear, that victims and their families have not been informed clear and specific reasons for arrests, that no arrest receipts have been provided, that arrestees have not been produced before a competent court. Access to lawyers have been denied and that indications are that they are arrested under the Preventive of Terrorism Act, as arrestees are being detained at Boosa detention facility run by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID). According to lawyers, if they have been arrested under the Immigration laws, they should have been detained in the Immigration Detention facility in Mirihana.

I have heard that some asylum seekers / refugees have been subjected to torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, which would be a violation of article 11 of the Sri Lankan constitution. The lack of due process also appear to be a violation of article 12 (1) of the Sri Lankan constitution. These are rights made available to all people in Sri Lanka, irrespective of their nationality and immigration status.

The statement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that the increase in number of asylum seekers is due to people falling victim due to commercially driven human trafficking networks which abuse liberal visa policy of Sri Lanka, appear to be speculative and unsubstantiated. From what I have heard and seen from my visits to Pakistan and communication with friends and colleagues there, it appear to be more due to persecution these persons face. Some asylum seekers maybe bogus. The best way to find out who is genuinely fleeing persecution is a comprehensive case by case assessment by the nationally and internationally recognized agency for this, UNHCR. Not any Sri Lankan government Ministry or Agency. All asylum seekers have a right to this due process, under international customary law and what deportations have done is to deny asylum seekers this opportunity. Although the MEA has claimed that asylum seekers have been “encouraged to return”, in practice, they have been forcibly been deported, as confirmed by UNHCR.

I have met in foreign countries, individual persons – university students, retired people, journalists, lawyers etc. – who have shown exceptional love, care, concern to Sri Lankan brothers and sisters who have fled persecution they had faced in Sri Lanka. I too have befitted from such hospitality from friends and strangers when I went into exile some years ago due to imminent threats I faced. When I was arrested and released some months ago, many overseas friends and strangers invited me to come and stay with them as long or visit them as often as I liked, and offered to take care of me. Likewise, I have met and worked with groups who have actively campaigned for laws, policies and practices in other countries to be more humane and legal in favour of Sri Lankan people who flee persecution in Sri Lanka, and whose security we are unable to guarantee within Sri Lanka.

Today, when the Sri Lankan government is throwing out people who have come here to seek protection temporarily, there is very little outrage. But encouraged and pushed by numerous passionate appeals by my refugee rights activist – lawyer friend Lakshan Dias, few of us have petitioned the Supreme Court and the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission to stop these deportations and arrests, on behalf of our brothers and sisters facing imminent deportations and arrests. We await their interventions with hope.

According to the MEA, as at 30th June 2014, there were 1562 asylum seekers and 308 refugees in Sri Lanka. This is about 0.009 % of the Sri Lankan population. It is also about 1.4% of the Sri Lankan refugees in other countries if I’m to use official UNHCR statistics. The last figure is likely to less than 1% if we consider actual numbers of Sri Lankan refugees and asylum seekers overseas.

Are these children, women and men too big a burden for us to take care? The Sri Lankan government doesn’t even offer them basic needs like housing or food. And anyways, the Sri Lankan government doesn’t offer permanent resettlement to persons whose asylum claims are approved – these are all people effectively here in transit, for few years at most, not decades.

But now, very sadly, Sri Lanka is not even willing to offer these desperate people even the most basic minimum, temporary protection, care and support, till UNHCR makes determination whether they are genuinely in need of international protection and till another country offers them more permanent care and support.

What the Sri Lankan government is doing is shameful, inhumane and betrays the spiritual –religious and humane values Sri Lankans claim to uphold. It is in breach of customary international law, and possibly even violates our own constitution and international human rights law the government is a party to. It is not in my name. I hope many more Sri Lankans will say the same and come forward to protect and express our love and care to desperate asylum seekers now living in Sri Lanka.

(Figures and quotes from UNHCR and MEA are based on briefing notes from UNHCR available at http://www.unhcr.org/53e9ff959.html, http://www.unhcr.org/print/53e0c0ae9.html and an official press release of the MEA available at http://www.mea.gov.lk/index.php/en/media/media-releases/5047-response-to-inquiries-on-asylum-seekers

  • Farhan Mall

    Thanks a lot Ruki for these wonderful words. Most of us living here in Sri Lanka never had problems because of the general public, we enjoyed generosity, support, and hospitality of the Sri Lankan public for many years. We have no reason to believe that Sri Lankan public is happy about what is happening.
    We were surprised by the Government’s actions and never thought it would treat the citizens of a friendly nation as it is treating them. We all came here because we knew nothing like what is happening could happen to us, our people were weeping when the Sri Lankan team was attacked by terrorists in our country, many of our people cheer for the Sri Lankan cricket team even when they are playing against Pakistan, we were proud of this brotherly relationship. It is a very disturbing fact that we are being labeled as terrorists and drug dealers when we ourselves are victims of terrorism and persecution. Almost all the people seeking asylum are either Ahmadis or Christian, these two groups of Pakistanis have never been involved in any act of terrorism nationally or internationally.
    We are well aware of problems associated with having refugees and asylum seekers in the country, our country has been hosting millions of refugees during last two decades. At present we are hosting a large number of Somalis and Afghans in our country (approximately 1.6 million of them). We are proud of the fact that we could share our country with them when they were in need of saving their lives.
    We request the government to stop deporting us, if the government had some problems with the UNHCR we as common people are not part of that, we are in need of protection and are helplessly looking at Sri Lanka and UNHCR to help us.

    • AnandLeo

      What an amazing story in contrast to the scathing reputation of the country for human rights.

  • sach

    Just because SL gov has bad blood with UNHRC the people who have come to SL should not be sent back. The refugees are christian most of the time and they are staying here temporary. I find it surprising to see none in SL media criticise the gover action on this. It is better if people especially churches can start some program to pressure the gover not to send the pakistani refugees. It is very sad to see them deported back to pak

    • Happy Heathen

      Agree, but Sri Lanka should take them irrespective of the nationality and religion, as they appear to be genuine refugees…..otherwise they would not have selected Sri Lanka, a developing country, compared to island-hopping economic migrants who are looking for a developed country to settle in.
      Furthermore, it will further strengthen the multiculturalism and expand the gene pool…!

  • Farhan Mall

    Pakistan also has enough people but it hosts 1.6 million refugees, most of the countries where Sri Lankans have sought asylum also have enough people. It is not about having enough people, it is about values, it is about compassion, it is about having a good heart. You said most of these people create problems down the line, what are those problems, how many asylum seekers have been involved in criminal activities in your country?

  • Ruki

    Update on 15th Aug: Appeal Court issued an interim order suspending deportation of anyone resgistered with UNHCR