Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera

On December 17, 2022, fishermen in northern Sri Lanka alerted the navy about a boat in distress adrift in the sea. On December 18, the navy rescued a group of 104 people from the boat. The navy has referred to them as Myanmar nationals while a statement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refers to them as Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya Muslims are stateless and many have fled and continue to flee from persecution in Myanmar. Many Rohingya refugees are also reported to be leaving refugee camps in Bangladesh due to overcrowding and the lack of facilities. In December, there have been alarming reports of deaths at sea of Rohingya refugees despite prior appeals, including from the United Nations, to nearby states to rescue them.

The rescued people were handed over to the police, produced before the Mallakam Magistrate (in the Jaffna district) and detained as “suspects” in the Jaffna prison. It is not clear under what legal provisions they were detained or what crime they (including children) were suspected of, especially since they had not landed illegally or even tried to enter Sri Lanka illegally but had been brought in by the navy who had rescued them from a boat in distress. A navy spokesperson is reported to have stated that “this is not a criminal action”.

UNHCR stated that it was providing support to the Sri Lankan authorities for their immediate needs. Mannar Social Economic Development Organization (MSEDO) provided immediate basic needs such as clothes, underwear, hijabs, sanitary pads, pampers, bed sheets, towels, soap, tooth paste, tooth brushes, slippers, toys and travelling bags while the group was at the Jaffna prison. Humanitarian aid was provided by MSEDO to two refugee families (about 10 people) admitted to the Tellipalai Base Hospital in the Jaffna district).

The group comprises 29 males, 26 females and 49 children, ranging in age from one to 70 years.

Immigration Detention Centers

On December 22, they were brought to Colombo and are being detained at the Mirihana and Welisara Immigration Detention Centers.

When I and some religious leaders visited the Mirihana Immigration Detention Center on December 26, we were politely informed by staff and policemen on duty that visitors were not allowed and only immigration officers could decide on allowing visitors. But they called the immigration officer in charge, who spoke to us on the phone. He said visitors were not encouraged but told us to come next day when he would also be around. We visited again on the next day and were allowed to distribute food items and toys we had brought. We had brief conversations with a few refugees across a closed barbed wire fence and a gate in restricted circumstances. Language was a major challenge as only one refugee spoke basic English. We were told that the group had left a refugee camp in Bangladesh and got into the boat on  December 3 and were at sea until they were rescued on December 18. All of them had received refugee certificates from UNHCR while they were in a refugee camp in Bangladesh but that some had been lost during their ordeal at sea.

Officials said the Mirihana Detention Center had been renovated to accommodate the new inmates, some beds had been purchased and the 84 Rohingya refugees were the only ones held there now. Men and women were in two separate sections and children below 10 years were in women’s section. A few people had been hospitalized and about 15 were suffering from fever. There were medical camps scheduled for December 27 and 28.

UNHCR was doing individual interviews when we visited the Welisara Detention Center later on December 27.  ICRC personnel were also at the Welisara Detention Center when we visited. Only two priests were allowed to talk to the 20 female Rohingya refugees there. The two Rohingya refugees who had come from Panadura to talk to the newly arrived refugees were disappointed. It was not clear whether this was the general rule or it was due to us going when UNHCR was doing intensive interviews.

However, security personnel provided us space at the reception area to talk freely to the Pakistani refugees (whom I had known earlier) in the same detention center. We heard that there were about six refugees from Pakistan in Welisara, including a family of four who have been in Sri Lanka since 2006. The father and two sons could only meet the wife/mother twice a week for about an hour each. They were also sad they could not go to church. They told us that 60 men and about three women were being detained there, mostly Nigerians. The Pakistani family had been detained at Mirihana before; they preferred Welisara since cooked food was being provided. Some officers had purchased provisions for them to cook their own food occasionally, such as on Christmas day.

The officials in both detention centers were cordial; they welcomed and facilitated humanitarian assistance and one officer called me later to seek support for special needs of a patient in hospital. But they were not too keen to allow interactions and discouraged visitors although they did allow us some minimal interactions. This is surprising since even suspects of crimes in Sri Lankan prisons can receive visitors six days a week.

Inspirations and challenges

The decision and actions of the navy to rescue and disembark those in distress is admirable, especially in comparison to reluctance of other Asian states to intervene for many days and weeks. However, if access to visitors is restricted and discouraged, especially from Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka, and if they continue to be detained, the appreciation earned by Sri Lanka may evaporate into familiar expressions of concern and condemnation.

Efforts of MSEDO and others to provide immediate humanitarian aid are acts of solidarity towards a community in distress. Two Sri Lankan children donated a significant amount of their toys to the refugee children. The most inspiring and moving experience was when I met some Rohingya refugees already in Sri Lanka who had seen the news, found the Mirihana Detention Center after much effort and visited the newly arrived refugees with some provisions. When they were asked to come back the next day, they did so. When they heard we were visiting the Rohingya women and girls in Welisara, they wanted to come along.

Visits by Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka, religious leaders and others must be encouraged because they will provide moral support to refugees, generate more humanitarian help and promote empathy and sensitivity amongst Sri Lankans.

In the short term I hope the Sri Lankan state will continue the good work initiated by the navy and, with help of generous citizens, provide these people who had suffered much with decent housing instead of detaining them like suspected criminals. Without housing, their release from detention will not be meaningful since they have nowhere to go except the streets. They must also be provided adequate food, mental and physical healthcare and security. In the midterm, the state must enrol Rohingya and all refugee children into the free education framework and provide adults with opportunities to be engaged in productive livelihoods. In the long term, the state must provide option of permanent resettlement and citizenship in Sri Lanka to those who may be keen. When we asked some other Rohingya refugees who have been in Sri Lanka for about five years and were still stateless whether they would like to permanently resettle in Sri Lanka, they immediately said yes, adding comments about Sri Lankans who had been nice to them.

The government has agreed to facilitate UNHCR to carry out its mandate in favor of refugees through an agreement in 2005. Procedures in terms of issuance of asylum and refugee certificates by UNHCR in Sri Lanka to foreign nationals seeking refugee status in Sri Lanka is elaborated through a Terms of Reference signed by the government and UNHCR in 2006. Those possessing asylum or refugee certificates are usually not arrested and detained unless they are suspected to have committed a crime. Most asylum seekers enter Sri Lanka through immigration counters at the airport. There have also been previous occasions of Rohingya refugees being rescued in the sea and brought to Sri Lanka by the navy and whose claims were subsequently processed by UNHCR, after which many had gone to other countries for permanent resettlement. There were about 36 Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka before the latest group came and they include the 31 whose house was attacked in a Colombo suburb by thugs in 2017 and had to be relocated.

For more information about refugees in Sri Lanka, see here and here.