Photo courtesy of AP

Today is World Refugee Day

In 2023, the number of refugees and asylum seekers (those with pending refugee applications) in the world increased about 8.75% from 45.9 million to 50.3 million, according to statistics of the UN  High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But Sri Lanka’s contribution to address this increasing global crisis has dramatically declined in the last 15 months. According to UNHCR statistics, Sri Lanka was hosting about 845 refugees and asylum seekers as of February 28, 2023 and only around 459 as of May 31, 2024, a decrease of 45%. Even as a small country, this is a serious concern considering the increasing numbers globally and large numbers hosted by other neighboring countries such as Pakistan (about 2 million) and Bangladesh (about 1 million).

UNHCR’s closure in Sri Lanka, fears and protests 

UNHCR’s decision to close its office in Sri Lanka by end of 2024 and appoint an liason officer is probably the major factor that is discouraging refugees and asylum seekers from coming to Sri Lanka. Already UNHCR has stopped processing asylum applications and facilitating permanent resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees who had arrived in Sri Lanka after March 31, 2022, estimated to be around 250. It had also stopped the monthly subsistence allowance and educational support provided to refugee children, including those who have been stuck in Sri Lanka for over a decade.

Despite limitations, UNHCR has been a key agency in protecting and supporting asylum seekers and refugees during their temporary stay in Sri Lanka and also in facilitating permanent resettlement of many who were recognized as refugees. After having fled persecution in their own countries, some have faced re-displacement and evictionsdetention 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. UNHCR’s closure has worsened fears of refugees and asylum seekers in Sri Lanka whose lives have always been full of insecurity, fear and uncertainty about the present and the future.

The announcement of the closure led to unprecedented protests outside UNHCR office in 2023 and 2024 in Colombo. Despite appeals, the UNHCR and UN country team is yet to adequately reassure this vulnerable population about how they will be supported and their rights protected. A major concern of refugees recognized by UNHCR is speedy permanent resettlement with some refugees having been in Sri Lanka for about 12 years. UNHCR has informed some refugees that it would not be able to facilitate permanent resettlement and they face imminent statelessness. A major concern of asylum seekers has been delays in interviews and knowing whether they will be recognized as refugees or not. It is this desperate situation and uncertainty that had prompted some refugees and asylum seekers, along with young children, to twice protest outside the UNHCR office in Colombo.

Eventually, it’s states that 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 are some UNHCR recognized refugees in Sri Lanka who do not have any prospects of permanent resettlement from any country and are facing imminent statelessness.

UNHCR’s scaling down or closure will be a major disappointment and challenge to refugees and asylum seekers. But it will present an opportunity for the Sri Lankan government to go beyond its present minimalistic role of allowing asylum seekers and refugees to temporarily stay in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka must at least now do better in fulfilling global responsibility of hosting, protecting, caring and supporting more than 50 million refugees and asylum seekers.

In the long term, Sri Lanka should offer permanent resettlement to refugees through a domestic legal framework and by ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention. This is particularly important if UNHCR continues to refuse to facilitate permanent resettlement and some refugees are not offered permanent resettlement by other states. Sri Lanka should also extend free education policy towards children and provide food, housing and in addition to basic health care at hospitals.

Despite occasional deportations and hostility and unwillingness to provide basic, essential support, successive Sri Lankan governments have tolerated the temporary stay of asylum seekers and refugees in Sri Lanka based on a 2005 agreement and 2006 terms of reference between the government and UNHCR and in line with Sri Lanka’s obligations under international customary law. Sri Lanka prohibits foreign nationals visiting Sri Lanka for tourism and conferences from engaging in employment but as of now, there doesn’t seem to be explicit prohibition on asylum seekers and refugees from engaging in employment. However, in practice, asylum seekers and refugees have not been able to seek employment despite having skills, experiences and academic qualifications and some have even been arrested and detained for seeking employment to fulfill basic needs. The inability to engage in meaningful employment has been a major challenge for asylum seekers and refugees and increased their dependency on others. UNHCR’s stopping of the monthly allowances and educational support for refugees last year will make employment opportunities even more important. Being employed will also contribute towards psychological wellbeing of asylum seekers and refugees who have no meaningful occupations while awaiting longer term solutions.

Human Rights Commission’s statement 

For the first time since it’s inception in 1996, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka issued a public statement for World Refugee Day emphasizing that the continued protection and promotion of the human rights of the remaining refugees, registered asylum seekers and those who have sought asylum but have not been formally registered require the close attention of dutybearers including the Sri Lankan state. The Commission has said that the rights of such persons to an adequate standard of living, to healthcare and education and to engage in a lawful occupation need to be protected and promoted. The Commission also recognized the principle of non-refoulement as an essential norm under international human rights, humanitarian and customary law. which prohibits states from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return. The Commission also reminded that Sri Lanka is party to a number of international human rights treaties that legally bind it to abide by the principle of non-refoulement and to refrain from repatriating those who are at risk of persecution, torture, ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations upon their return and that Sri Lanka’s domestic law also recognizes this principle.

The Commission called on the government to formulate a comprehensive policy to ensure the protection and promotion of the human rights of all refugees and asylum seekers in Sri Lanka and committed itself to actively participate in the preparation and implementation of such a policy. It also called on the government to consider accession to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

Future of refugees and asylum seekers

The Commission’s statement comes at a time when there is very little for asylum seekers and refugees to look forward to in Sri Lanka and one hopes the government will take into serious consideration and act on the Commission’s recommendations.

UNHCR must ensure continuation of minimum and most essential services such as issuing of asylum certificates to new arrivals, completing interviewing and refugee status determination of asylum seekers already in Sri Lanka and facilitating the permanent resettlement of those already recognized as refugees. Various other UN agencies in Sri Lanka working with children, women, food, education, health, housing and development must include asylum seekers and refugees in the work they are doing in Sri Lanka. The UN Resident Coordinator must give stronger leadership to ensure protection of rights and wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers, including coordination with UN agencies and the government. Member states of the UN must assist by facilitating permanent resettlement of the small number of refugees in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan society, including religious groups and civil society, should provide better support, care and protection for refugees and asylum seekers. Our hospitality, adherence to domestic and international legal obligations, spiritual, religious and cultural values will be tested on how we treat this small number of vulnerable and persecuted people among us and our willingness to contribute meaningfully to address a global crisis.