Following the Easter Sunday massacre more than 1000 refugees and asylum seekers were evicted from their rented houses in Negombo and they had to seek refuge in two mosques and the police station in Negombo. With barely minimal possessions and minimum facilities, the once persecuted group of people live in much uncertainty and fear. They plead for their cases to be expedited, so they can be resettled in a third country soon, which was their aim in coming to Sri Lanka in the first place.
According to a Human Rights Lawyer who did not want to be named, the asylum seekers and refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan are fleeing persecution, including systemic violence by extremist groups, due to their identity as Ahmadi, Shia or Christians. They are also fleeing legal persecution under a legal system which targets minorities as apostates or under anti-blasphemy legislation. “They live in fear. They have come here in families because they have faced violent mobs, killings, and any member of the family left behind is likely to be targeted. They have come here out of absolute desperation. They have zero ability to go back,” the HR lawyer said.
“There is much uncertainty in their lives. They are in limbo and lack effective protection in a situation such as this. They fear facing the same violence they fled from. Their fear of terrorism and extremism is real and visceral. They are pawns in a much larger game, where they are being blamed for state failure and for the actions of a few, for which they cannot be held accountable,” she said.
Though doctors visit them, finding the medication for them is difficult - Ruki Fernando
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, 26-year - old Asefa Aziz*, a displaced refugee from Afganistan, who belongs to the Shi’a Hazara minority community, said that her family moved to Sri Lanka fleeing persecution in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world. Hazara people are treated like slaves and are tortured. They call us kafir (non-believer),” she said.
Conditions they live under
When the refugees and asylum seekers were evicted from their houses, the Negombo Police Station and two mosques housed them. However, the refugees and asylum seekers at the garage of the police station in Negombo live in cramped up deplorable conditions. Asefa told the Daily Mirror that there was a lack of proper food and water, and children were losing weight.
According to Human Rights Activist Ruki Fernando, people have fallen sick due to the cramped up conditions at the garage where almost 160 people live. “Though doctors visit them, finding the medication for them is difficult,” he said.
Fernando said the police were sympathetic towards the plight of the asylum seekers and refugees. “But they are greatly inconvenienced by the presence of these refugees and asylum seekers for an extended period of time,” he said.
4/21 Displaced a Persecuted Community
Sri Lanka’s obligations
Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor to its 1967 Protocol. However, the Government of Sri Lanka and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR signed a Memorandum of Understanding(MOU) in 2005 which allows UNHCR to fulfill its protection and solutions mandate for asylum-seekers and refugees within the Sri Lankan territory. Accordingly, under the MOU and its terms and references which were agreed upon in 2006, the UNHCR is responsible for conducting registration, documentation and refugee status determination (RSD) procedures for asylum seekers.
The MOU enables asylum seekers to live in Sri Lanka. However, the pre-condition is that they should be registered with the UNHCR. Attorney-at-Law Menaka Lecamwasam, who has conducted research on refugee related matters, pointed out that if an asylum seeker is not registered with the UNHCR, they are often classified as ‘illegal immigrants’, and can be deported. “This is largely because of an unawareness about the UNHCR and that you should get registered as an asylum seeker,” she said.
Asefa is recognised as a refugee by the UNHCR. Her family arrived in Sri Lanka three and a half years ago. An interview with a representative from the United States for her resettlement had been scheduled for last month. But her glimmer of hope waned when the interview was cancelled following the Easter Sunday Bombings. “Before the attacks we were happy because our Sri Lankan neighbours were happy with us. But now we can’t go out. We don’t want to stay here anymore. Sri Lankans don’t want us. We have no complaints against them. We are so afraid” she said.
“Being a refugee is not a crime. We are here because we have no choice. This is like a bad dream,” she added.
According to lawyers, on average it takes one and a half years for the application of an asylum seeker to be processed. Once a person is recognised as a refugee resulting from the RSD, the UNHRC facilitates his or her resettlement to a third country which in some cases takes several years. Sri Lanka does not permit resettlement of refugees in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is merely a temporary ‘transit point’.
The UNHCR issues certificates for asylum seekers and refugees respectively which allows them to stay in Sri Lanka. According to the UNHCR Submission on Sri Lanka at the Universal Periodic Review in March, 2017 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR are afforded free health care in State hospitals in Sri Lanka. However, children do not have access to free education, and adults are not allowed to work. Asefa’s family of three received Rs. 16 000 per month from the UNHCR prior to their displacement.
“We don’t need food. We don’t need clothes. Please proceed with our case and resettle us so we can work and earn,” pleaded Asefa.
Another lawyer, who spoke on terms of anonymity, said that for the past 13 years, around ten thousand refugees who arrived in Sri Lanka, fleeing persecution from their countries of origin, were resettled in the USA, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, etc. He added that each host country had an annual allocations for refugees.
We have an Act which has enabled certain provisions of the CAT - Menaka Lecamwasam
Meanwhile, Lecamwasam said that the State has an obligation to protect the asylum seekers. “Certain fundamental rights are enjoyed by non-citizens as well. So if such a right is violated the State has an obligation to remedy the situation,” she said. According to Section 18 (1) and (2) of the Enforced Disappearance Act No 5 of 2018 no person can be extradited where there is a possibility of such a person being subjected to an enforced disappearance.
“Gross violations of human rights are very much a reality in almost all the countries of origin of persons seeking asylum in Sri Lanka, which should be adequate justification to not refoule asylum seekers,” said Lecamwasam.
She also said that the principle of non-refoulement under International law prevents States from repatriating persons to situations of persecution. However, she pointed out that since Sri Lanka is a dualist country, enabling legislation is required to give effect to international obligations such as those under the CAT Convention. “We have an Act which has enabled certain provisions of the CAT within the domestic sphere (Convention Against Torture and other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act, No. 22 of 1994). But the problem is that this particular Act does not recognise the principle of non-refoulement” she said.
Last week 35 refugees were relocated to a Government run rehabilitation centre in Vavuniya. Previously, the suggestion to relocate the refugees and asylum seekers to the Ridiyagama State detention centre was rejected by the UNHCR.
Lecamwasam said that the State should ensure that the refugees are relocated under humane conditions and that subsequent accommodation should conform to adequate and accepted standards of living.
She further urged the Government to bring to book the perpetrators who led to the eviction of asylum-seekers and refugees from their accommodation in Negombo.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity
pix by Damith Wickramasinghe