Photo courtesy Gemunu Amarasinghe/Associated Press via The Washington Post

“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