Photo courtesy of Angelica Chandrasekeran

Many Sri Lankans engage in protests for a variety of grievances but protests by refugees and asylum seekers, one of the most marginalized communities in Sri Lanka, are rare. From my memory, the protest held on May 23 outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Colombo is the second protest by refugees and asylum seekers since I started working with them about ten years ago. I have heard that those involved in the previous protest some years ago have received permanent resettlement and have left Sri Lanka.

The imminent scaling down of UNHCR operations in Sri Lanka (some are calling it a closure) in 2024 has worsened fears of refugees and asylum seekers whose lives have always been full of insecurity, fear and uncertainty about the present and the future. After having fled persecution in their own countries, some have faced re-displacement and evictions, detention and various forms of hostility during their stay in Sri Lanka. In the past there have been instances of deportations, including from the airport. They have also been struggling to survive in Sri Lanka with difficulties to find essential needs such as educating children, food, housing and medicine. The prohibition on engaging in meaningful employment have affected them financially and also in terms of mental health. According to UNHCR, as of February 28, 2023, 845 asylum seekers and refugees were reported to have been in Sri Lanka. But this excludes a few whose asylum claims have been rejected by UNHCR and those who are awaiting processing of their applications in the Canadian private sponsorship program.

A major concern of refugees recognized by UNHCR is speedy permanent resettlement with some refugees having been in Sri Lanka for about 10 years. In recent times, UNHCR has informed some refugees that it would not be able to facilitate permanent resettlement. Despite some recent increases, the monthly allowance the refugees get from UNHCR is inadequate for dignified living, especially in context of the massive increase in cost of living. Some refugee children get scholarships from UNHCR but some do not.

UNHCR has announced that the monthly allowances and scholarships for children will be stopped at the end of 2023. A major concern of asylum seekers (those whose refugee applications are pending at UNHCR) has been delays in knowing whether they will be recognized as refugees or not. Unlike refugees, they don’t get even a small monthly allowance and scholarships for children and are left to fend for themselves. It is this desperate situation and uncertainty that had prompted some refugees and asylum seekers, along with young children, to organize the protest outside UNHCR office in Colombo on May 23.

Initially, security guards at UNHCR informed protesters that UNHCR officers had refused to meet them and had asked them to submit any concerns through email. But the refugees refused to budge and stood their ground until an UNHCR officer came to the gate and accepted petitions through the locked gate. Ironically, throughout the two hours of protest, UNHCR’s gates and doors remained barricaded and its premises were inaccessible to refugees and asylum seekers, who are referred to as “persons of concern to UNHCR”.

Family awaiting resettlement since 2012

One of the families who was involved in organizing the protest (parents and two girls aged 14 and 12) had arrived in Sri Lanka on September 1, 2012 and were recognized as refugees needing international protection by UNHCR on September 25, 2015. UNHCR had submitted their file to the US for permanent resettlement and it was rejected in 2016 and an appeal was also rejected in 2018. In 2019, the file was sent to Australia for permanent resettlement and this too was rejected in 2019. UNHCR had informed the family the file was sent to New Zealand and that it had been rejected but the family is not aware of any documentation about this. The family had also been informed by UNHCR that the file would not be sent to United Kingdom or Canada. On July 4 (verbal) and July 22, 2022 (email), the UNHCR Resettlement Unit in Colombo communicated to the family saying resettlement option via UNHCR is no longer available and that there is nothing (UNHCR) management is able to do as disapproval was from countries UNHCR had submitted the file for resettlement. On August 29, 2022, the family wrote a detailed appeal to UNHCR headquarters about dangers of going back to Pakistan (which UNHCR has recognized), impossibility to permanently resettle in Sri Lanka (which UNHCR is well aware of) and inability to find private sponsors and thus, inevitability of statelessness. There has been no response. In November and December 2022, the family then took the unprecedented step of directly writing and appealing again to the US Embassy and Australian and New Zealand High Commission, as well as to Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, France, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Japan and South Korea but there has been no favorable responses.

Challenges to other states

This case indicates that UNHCR should be doing more to facilitate the permanent resettlement of persons recognized as refugees. But it also illustrates that states will have to bear responsibility to offer permanent resettlement and avoid more stateless people. Traditionally, the US and Canada have offered permanent resettlement to refugees in Sri Lanka and more recently other countries such as France, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have also offered permanent resettlement. But there some UNHCR recognized refugees who fall through the cracks and are facing imminent statelessness.

Challenges to Sri Lanka

UNHCR’s scaling down or closure will be major disappointment and challenge to refugees and asylum seekers. But it will present an opportunity for Sri Lankan government to go beyond its present minimalistic role of allowing asylum seekers and refugees to temporarily stay in Sri Lanka and for UNHCR to process their claims and resettlement. Sri Lanka must at least now do better in fulfilling global responsibility of hosting, protecting, caring and supporting 42.7 million people in need of international protection, including 32.5 million refugees and 4.9 million asylum seekers (UNHCR’s 2022 statistics).

In the short term this should include allowing refugees and asylum seekers to be employed, extending free education policy towards children and provision of food, housing and medicine in addition to basic health care at hospitals. In the long term, Sri Lanka should offer permanent resettlement to refugees through domestic legal framework and by ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The lack of support and solidarity from Sri Lankans towards the protesting refugees and asylum seekers is disappointing. However, the presence of three lawyers to support the protesters and media coverage by local media was encouraging. I hope the protest and the media coverage will raise awareness amongst more Sri Lankans about challenges facing refugees and asylum seekers and encourage more empathy, support and care.