Thousands of desperate Afghans with fading hope throng at the ariport premises to flee the country after Taliban recapture Afghanistan
Several rights groups have urged Sri Lankan Government to provide visas for human rights defenders, journalists and others at risk in the crisis-ridden Afghanistan. Besides, the National peace council has called on the Government to be a part of the international effort to provide refuge to those who wish to leave Afghanistan, which is a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), of which Sri Lanka is a founder member.In the aftermath of this crisis the Daily Mirror contacted human rights activists and other concerned groups to obtain their opinion.
UNHCR and Sri Lanka
During the incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency in 2005, Sri Lanka signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to facilitate the asylum- seeking process when asylum seekers come to Sri Lanka and apply for refugee status. As a result those who came to Sri Lanka seeking refugee status could apply for it through the UNHCR. Since Sri Lanka is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Sri Lanka does not have a national law to provide permanent resettlement for those seeking refuge. Sri Lanka has hosted refugees temporarily for several years before a third country accepts them for permanent resettlement. Today there are about 1300 foreign refugees in the country.
"During the incumbent PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency in 2005, Sri Lanka signed a MoU with the UNHCR to facilitate the asylum- seeking process when asylum seekers come to Sri Lanka and apply for refugee status"
Concern for asylum seekers
Speaking to the Daily Mirror refugee rights activist Ruki Fernando said the asylum seeking procedure was facilitated through shared information between the Government and the UNHCR. Mr. Fernando said the asylum seeking procedure involved mutual dialogues and communication between the government and the UNHCR. The asylum seekers have to abide by the laws of the country.
Referring to how Sri Lanka would handle asylum seekers, Mr. Fernando said, “Before the Covid-19 pandemic there were asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan, The majority of them from the Pakistan which is also a member the SAARC. From about 12 to 15 countries there were people who sought asylum. They come on a normal visit visa. That is the only way for them to come to Sri Lanka, whereas the latter does not issue asylum visas. So after they come on a visa, they approach the UNHCR and apply for asylum status. The Government does not reject the asylum seekers, as there is shared information between the Government and the UNHCR. The Sri Lankan Government permits these asylum seekers to stay temporarily. But Government does not provide free education to them. The refugees however contribute to our economy by spending money. If they do anything illegal they are subject to investigations. But there have been a few such cases.”
"Before the Covid-19 pandemic there were asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan, The majority of them from the Pakistan which is also a member the SAARC. From about 12 to 15 countries there were people who sought asylum - Ruki Fernando"
Mr. Fernando said Sri Lanka had won the credibility from the international community. He said, “There are about 82 million refugees worldwide. Despite the small number Sri Lanka has been hosting, it has been recognized for the positive contribution made with regard to this global crisis. Hosting people has been a positive factor for Sri Lanka. Our hospitality is not judged by how we welcome cricketers, musicians or politicians but by how we welcome and treat people who are in trouble. That is the indicator of our hospitality. When we welcome refugees, people consider Sri Lankans to be hospitable. Sri Lanka provides the refugees free healthcare. If we can go further by providing free education to them, our credibility will also rise.” He said the refugees would have a very positive feeling when they land in Canada, the United States or any other country. He said they would tell how they had been treated in Sri Lanka. “Now as Afghanistan is in a serious humanitarian crisis, if we put in place a special mechanism to welcome the most vulnerable people such as women, children, human right activists and journalists, Sri Lanka will be held in high esteem internationally. Several media freedom organizations like the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association and the Sri Lanka Young Journalists Association have written to the Foreign Minister and media minister to make special arrangements to give refuge to people from Afghanistan,” Mr. Fernando said.
"Hosting people has been a positive factor for Sri Lanka. Our hospitality is not judged by how we welcome cricketers, musicians or politicians but by how we welcome and treat people who are in trouble. That is the indicator of our hospitality"
Mr. Fernando also said, “That contribution is important. We have to continue this contribution. That is why we haven’t shut our borders. That is why we should not deny refuge or deport Afghans. By and large successive Governments including the present Government have respected this practice of welcoming refugees,”
Mr. Fernando said this was an important test and Sri Lanka needed to be ready to welcome even a small number. “That is why we are urging. There should be our contribution too by welcoming at least a few Afghans. As we are not a party to the 1952 Convention we don’t offer refugees permanent resettlements. There is no prohibition to offer resettlements, but we can voluntarily offer. And this Covid-19 pandemic is not an excuse not to welcome refugees. We should welcome them by following health protocols,” he said.
“There have been no requests by Afghan nationals to enter Sri Lanka despite the worsening situation that prevails in Afghanistan - Sugeeshwara Gunaratna (Foreign Ministry Spokesman)”
When questioned as to whether Afghan nationals have arrived in Sri Lanka because of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in that country, Foreign Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Spokesperson Sugeeshwara Gunaratna said as per information available at the Foreign Ministry, there were no requests made by Afghan nationals to enter Sri Lanka despite the crisis situation that prevails in Afghanistan.
Several attempts were made to contact the Immigration Department, but our efforts proved futile.