Asylum seekers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran stay inside a police station for safety
Displaced int’l asylum seekers
“We understand how sad and angry they must be feeling for the loss of their relatives. But, we also hate terrorism. We love peace and freedom which is why we came to peace-loving Sri Lanka,” Hafza, a Pakistani national, said. Hafza is a Christian seeking asylum in Sri Lanka. She left Pakistan as she married a Christian; a taboo in Pakistan. In fear of family outrage, she came to Sri Lanka to start a new life.
As burials of those who died in the suicide bomb attack in St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, Negombo commenced on April 22, some devastated Christian families started attacking asylum seekers who live close by and forced them to leave the area. “I was cooking when a group of people arrived and shouted at us to leave. Then, the house owner said if we don’t leave, he would also be attacked by them. We just had to leave with our kids,” Hafza recalled.
Along with Hafza, there are more than 800 asylum seekers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran who have been living in Negombo with the assistance of UNHCR in rented houses for years sans issues. It is after the ISIS claimed responsibility for the suicide attacks and local investigations revealed that a group of Sri Lankan radical Muslims comprised the suicide bombers, who killed innocent Christians, that the people in Negombo got agitated and started attacking these marginalised minorities. Among these asylum seekers are refugees who belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, whose faith is outlawed in Pakistan. There are also Christian Muslims like Hafza.
“How can they kill innocent Christians who were praying? Those terrorists are not humans. They are evil,” Hafza said. “I have heard that Sri Lanka is a peaceful country to live in alongside wonderful humble people. We had to come here seeking help from Sri Lankans due to persecution and safety issues in our mother countries. Now, we are not safe even here.”
Displaced families outside a unit of the police station
Pix by Damith Wickremesinghe
After they had to vacate the houses they were sent in a group to a mosque for safety. Another group of people was provided with security inside a police station. When we visited them, infants were sleeping on a thin bed sheet on the floor while adults were sitting on some plastic chairs and dozing off.
Zelda was not even born when her parents left Afghanistan due to ongoing clashes and lack of safety. She was born in Iran where her parents were living as asylum seekers. Unable to remain in Iran due to persecution, their next destination was Sri Lanka. Zelda is now twelve years old and nurtures her ambition to be a social activist and help the people in need. She also had to leave the family’s house in Negombo when the mobs put pressure on them. Speaking about the terrorist attacks, Zelda said: “We heard that so many innocent kids like us had to die because of a terrorist attack. We are so sad. We are so shocked.”
“I have dreams about my future. But, I am afraid I would be travelling all our lives seeking safety and in search of something that we can never get. We are in search of peace and freedom,” she said.
Raja Kamran left Azad Kashmir owing to threats to life as he was a political activist and youth leader in Kashmir. Along with his wife and baby, he arrived in Sri Lanka in January 2018.
“This is a peaceful country. I have seen families in which mother is Muslim and father is Buddhist. We are hurt now because some terrorists are harming inter-religious harmony among Sri Lankan communities,” Raja said.
Kids seeking asylum in Sri Lanka
During his stay during the past year in Negombo, he said he had never seen fighting among people. “I dreamed a wonderful future and eternal freedom. But, now all our hopes are shattered,”said Raja.
He offered criticism to the fact that even though they are under the UNHCR, they have not taken responsibility with regard to their safety during this difficult time.
“House owners have already closed the doors on us. There is no guarantee for life being outside. We have to secure our own lives. It is pointless when people get treated by their faiths and religious affiliations. But, what is the religion of ISIS? They have no religion. Those people don’t believe in the same God I believe in. Real Muslims will never kill people. This has nothing to do with religion. It really is just good against evil,” Raj said.
Normally, governments guarantee the basic human rights and physical security of their citizens. When a refugee has fled to another country UNHCR’s main role is to ensure that states are aware of this and undertake the obligations to protect refugees and people seeking asylum. One of the most important things for states to know is that they may not forcibly return refugees to a territory where they face danger.
Being a refugee or asylum-seeker is always difficult. People have left their homes and families because they feared for their own security. They had no choice. They are living in a foreign country trying to survive and secure a future for themselves and their families.
Needless to say when someone you know dies, it can turn your life upside down. People grieve in many different ways over the death of someone close to them. If the death is caused by a gruesome terrorist bomb attack, such as the string of suicide bomb explosions that took place in Sri Lanka, the feelings of the victims’ families can be too much to handle.
The Islamic terrorists’ attacks targeted Christians and killed 359 people and left more than 500 permanently injured. Mothers are weeping for their children who died in the suicide bomb attack in St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya while mothers among asylum seekers cry for the safety of their kids. Don’t we all face the same problems? Is it fair to punish the whole for the actions of a few? Many believe it is so not so.