Last Friday was World Refugees’ Day and figures given by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) were a damning indictment and a disgrace to a world which boasts of the marvels of modern technology and science. The UNHCR reports said a staggering 51 million people were refugees – the highest since the second world war.
The highest number of refugees was in Syria, where about 1.5 million people including more than half a million children have been displaced during the three-year multifaceted armed rebellion against the Assad regime. UN volunteers say the situation is so grave that more than 500,000 children are losing their childhood and if they grow up to be rebels or terrorists the fault will not be theirs but of an insensitive if not senseless world. The big powers like the United States and Russia are supporting different sides because of their own geo-political agendas, while the multitude of rebel groups are themselves divided on a sectarian Shia and Sunni Muslim basis.
As a direct result of the Syrian conflict, the hardline Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has launched a full-scale war against the Shia-dominated Iraqi Government with about one million people reported to be fleeing from areas captured by the ISIS. That means another one million refugees.
Sri Lanka also has been caught up in this refugee crisis. According to reports about 1450 Pakistanis have sought asylum in Sri Lanka and have registered themselves with the UNHCR office in Colombo. The immigration Dept. and police have arrested and detained 142 of these Pakistanis for alleged involvement in Drug peddling and other offences. They are to be deported, but the UNHCR has warned Sri Lanka that any such deportation would be a violation of an international law which prohibits handing over of victims of persecution to their persecutors.
The UNHCR says such registration of asylum seekers was made possible by a 2005 agreement between the Government and the UNHCR. This allows registered asylum seekers to stay in a host country until their cases are processed and they are relocated to a third country.
The UNHCR says the arrest and possible deportation of the Pakistanis will be a violation of the spirit of international refugee protection and laws. However, Immigration Commissioner Chulananda Perera has challenged the UNHCR interpretation saying the 2005 agreement binds the UNHCR to notify the Immigration Department when asylum seekers arrive in Sri Lanka. He says the UNHCR is also obliged to ask the Department if it objects to an individual remaining in the country. The Immigration Commissioner says it is the UNHCR and not Sri Lanka that has violated the 2005 agreement.
Amid these claims and counter-claims, there is also a more serious dimension for Sri Lanka. According to the Sunday Times Political column, India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told President Mahinda Rajapaksa during a meeting in New Delhi last month India believed that Pakistan militant groups were gathering in Sri Lanka to plan terrorist acts against India. Mr. Modi also said there were reports of the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agents operating in Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa had told Premier Modi he would look into the matter. The possible deportations are believed to be linked to the Indian allegations and the UNHCR office needs to look into this dangerous possibility before accusing Sri Lanka of breaking an international law. Refugees need to be protected, but if there are militants among them, the issue touches a different dimension.