While asylum seekers have been known to originate from Sri Lanka in large numbers seeking a better life in western countries, it is a little unusual for the island to make the news for hosting them. An influx of asylum seekers from Pakistan to Sri Lanka has created such a situation, and has caught the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and others unprepared, it seems.
The suspension a week ago of the visa-on-arrival facility for Pakistani nationals travelling to Sri Lanka signalled that the issue had reached a turning point with immigration authorities. The arrest and detention of 142 Pakistani asylum seekers and refugees last month came without warning, and has created a climate of fear and insecurity among the community of 1,433 asylum seekers and 185 refugees who are Pakistani nationals, currently in Sri Lanka. Most of them are from the Ahmadi community, considered apostate in Pakistan, while there are some Christians and Sunni Muslims too. The steep increase in arrivals took place in 2013.
In 2012, asylum seekers of all nationalities totaled just 200, and refugees 103, according to the UN refugee agency.
While there have been media reports that suggest those arrested are to be deported, the agency’s Colombo office says there were no deportations as of June 30, 2014. The UNHCR has not been informed of the government’s intentions with regard to the detainees, nor the charges against which the arrests were made. It has reminded the Sri Lankan government of its obligation to observe the principle of ‘non-refoulement,’ which forbids the handing over of victims of persecution to their persecutors.
“Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol,” according to Dushanthi Fernando, a spokesperson for UNHCR. “The cooperation with UNHCR is based on the agreement signed between the UNHCR and the government of Sri Lanka in 2005 that contains references to UNHCR Statute, 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. In addition, Sri Lanka is bound by observance of the principle of non-refoulement that has attained the status of international customary law.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) says the visa- on-arrival facility, which allows a 30-day stay with the possibility of extension, was designed to promote tourism, but has been abused by some Pakistanis who used it to gain entry to the country and then walked into the UNHCR to claim refugee status. “We don’t want such people to come here and be a nuisance to the local community,” says A.M.J. Sadiq, Director General of Public Communications MEA.
The MEA maintains that immigration authorities made the policy change decision.
Repeated attempts to reach the Controller of Immigration for comment were unsuccessful.
“No one wants to leave their motherland. All we want is safety for our lives and for our children to have a future,” says Maria (56), a physiotherapist who has been living for over a year with her husband and son (17) in the coastal town of Negombo, 38 kilometres north of Colombo where most of the community is concentrated.
Speaking on the phone, she says, she was a Christian who engaged in evangelism and faced death threats in Pakistan. She ran a clinic back home, but had to keep shifting and eventually had to close it. “We have religious freedom in Sri Lanka” says Maria (not her real name).
The task of ascertaining the genuineness of an asylum claim is said to take up to two years. The UNHRC says once people are recognised as refugees the agency supports them “until a durable solution is found for them”.
This usually means relocation in a third country ready to accept them.
The asylum seekers in Negombo are partly supported by a Netherlands-based organisation called Pakistani European Christian Alliance (PECA) that pays their rent, it is learnt. The local mosques and churches in this predominantly Catholic town also assist them.
“My concern is for the children — there are about 60 — with no proper school education,” says Fr. Terrence Bodiya Baduge, the parish priest of St. Sebastian’s church. He had arranged informal classes for the children with volunteers from among the asylum seekers, but the school had to close when three of its five teachers were arrested during the recent roundup and taken to a detention centre in Boossa, the pastor adds. An Urdu language mass held twice a month was also discontinued, as people no longer came because of fear.
He observes, it is possible that not all asylum seekers’ cases are genuine, but humane considerations take precedence. “I’m helping them because they are human beings,” he says.
Given the suddenness of the visa policy change and arrest of the Pakistani nationals with no reasons given, the media have also speculated on the realpolitik dimension of these developments. Reports point out that when India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa for bilateral talks following his swearing in ceremony in New Delhi in May, one of the concerns he raised was the possibility that Pakistani terrorist groups were using Sri Lanka to plan attacks against India.
“The Sri Lankan administration is in danger of falling between two stools, in its inept handling of its relations with India and Pakistan,” says political analyst Dr Dayan Jayatilleka. “The possibility of deportation of Pakistanis seems to me to be a Sri Lankan sop to a neighbouring Cerberus.” Elaborating, he says, Indo-Lanka relations have been eroded by several issues, above all the non-fulfillment of the Sri Lankan leadership’s pledge to the government of India to fully and expeditiously implement the 13th amendment to the constitution which makes for devolution of power to the provinces, most pertinently the Tamil dominated Northern Province. “…The Sri Lankan ruling elite seems to have settled on assuaging India’s security threat perceptions with relation to the use of Sri Lanka as a transit point or staging post by Islamic extremists. The crackdown on Pakistani immigrants takes place against this backdrop.”