Seven males, seven females and seventeen kids took a small boat from Tamil Nadu in April this year driven by a fantasy to illegally sail off to Australia. The small boat they used was so small that it wasn’t even suitable for crossing a river, much less a vast sea. The helpless group of Rohingyas became victims of two Indian human traffickers. The group consisting 31 people, including a pregnant woman, had been staying in several parts in India, including Jammu-Kashmir, Hyderabad and Thanjavur, for five years, starting 2012. They left India this year due to the fear of being sent back to Myanmar. Their decision to leave was largely fuelled by the attitude they took that they’d ‘rather die than be deported’.
- This is the third group from Myanmar to arrive in Sri Lanka
- These people were legally recognized as refugees even before arriving in Sri Lanka
- Accidentally but fortunately for them, the small boat saw its journey being hampered by a technical issue and floated towards Sri Lankan waters
Sometime back in 2012, they crossed the Myanmar-Bangladesh border at the Ghumdhum point not in search of a luxurious life, but just to save themselves. Having being born among the poorest minority of the country, Myanmar, Rohingyas didn’t have an option other than leaving homelands owing to relentless oppression which caused thousands of them uprooting. Some even perished during the journey before reaching a shelter. Their stay in Bangladesh was shortened to six months. Their desperate journey didn’t see an end in India too.
As there is a security concern regarding the lives of these people now, I think the resettlement process of the UNHCR will be expedited because we need to send them to another country soon - Country representative of UK Founded Muslim NGO
These people were aware that many countries don’t want them in their countries. They knew that they are considered a risk to security and thought of as terrorists. As the situation in Myanmar intensified, hopes of a ‘homecoming’ were also fading. In the meantime, they heard of the news that the Indian government was to deport all undocumented immigrants, including Rohingyas. That is when they decided to risk their lives and board a boat to reach many South Asian refugees’ dream destination; Australia. Each family paid INR 20, 000 to the two Indian traffickers by selling all their possessions.
Accidentally but fortunately for them, the small boat saw its journey being hampered by a technical issue and floated towards Sri Lankan waters where they were found by Sri Lanka Navy on April 30, 2017. When they were detected, all kids were tethered to their mothers for safety. Most were barefoot. They risked their lives in the sea in their attempts to find freedom and have a better life. These helpless Rohingyas would have died or gone missing in the sea as they were stranded without food, life jackets or water if the Navy didn’t rescue them.
The illegal immigrants were later brought to Colombo, following an order by the Mallakam Magistrate to locate them at the Mirihana Detention Centre. The two Indians who rode the boat are held at Jaffna Prison, with a case pending against them. Subsequently, with the intervention of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the 32 people including a new born infant were transferred to a safe house in Mount Lavinia. The transfer was made when a 21-year- old girl among the refugees was allegedly raped by a police officer, who was one of the protection officers on duty. The case under B report B/2030/17 in this regard is at the Gangodawila Magistrate’s court.
Sri Lanka, a country, where one could see ample examples of desperate victims during the thirty-year bloody war, made headlines on August 26, 2017 after a group including Buddhist monks forcibly entered the safe house in Mount Lavinia where the Rohingya people were accommodated by the UNHCR.
Concern over refugees’ lives
The country representative of a UK founded Non-Governmental Organization, which acted as a caretaker of these people, spoke to the Daily Mirror on the condition of anonymity. He said they have been coordinating with the UNHCR since 2008, the year which marked the first group of Myanmar refugees arriving in Sri Lanka.
He said the group of 32 Rohingyas had been provided with all basic requirements and also the assistance of the NGO and the UNHCR. According to him, six children were even attending an international school in Panadura.
The incident that happened at a Mount Lavinia safe house was a black mark against the country’s international image. It was disheartening to see how those people responded. The incident was politically motivated -Shiraz Noordeen, Counsel appearing on behalf of the Rohingya group
“They are refugees who fled homelands ruptured by war, repression and poverty. Their journeys have been perilous. They came here in search of safety. But, they realized that the safety they expected couldn’t be found in Sri Lanka after the monks seized the place they were staying at. These people were legally recognized as refugees even before arriving in Sri Lanka. The UNHCR will only keep them here until they find a third country, so that these people can be resettled. As there is a security concern regarding the lives of these people now, I think the resettlement process of the UNHCR will be expedited because we need to send them to a country soon,” he said.
Country being legally unbound and morally bound
Refugee Advocate and Human Rights Lawyer Lakshan Dias, speaking to the Daily Mirror said Sri Lanka isn’t bound to accommodate and provide assistance to these people since the country hasn’t signed the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 nor its 1967 Protocol. Other than Afghanistan, none of the South Asian countries has signed the UN 1951 Convention nor the 1967 Protocol.
The UNHCR is taking care of the Rohingyas and all other immigrants who arrived in the country. As per the UN regulations, undocumented migrants are required to make an appeal as asylum seekers and wait till the UNHCR determines them to the status of refugees. Those who are determined as refugees are eligible for the UN assistance for health care, education and daily rations, Attorney Dias said.
The Department of Immigration and Emigration has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the UNHCR in 2006 regarding the migrants’ issue. The UN is intervening into the subject based on the MoU, he said.
According to Dias, those who aren’t determined as refugees are repatriated.
As a country which has been a beneficiary of the UN on a large scale, Sri Lanka has an obligation towards assisting unfortunate people of other countries when there is a need - Jehan Perera, National Peace Council (NPC)
“This is the third group from Myanmar to arrive in Sri Lanka. The first group consisting 55 people who were en route to Malaysia and Thailand was discovered by Sri Lanka Navy in 2008. By that time, the Mirihana Detention Centre didn’t exist. Therefore, they were temporarily settled in tents with minimum facilities. A Christian Anglican Church in Mirihana financed the setting up of toilets for the people who lived in tents. The UNHCR concluded the refugee determination process by 2013 and the people were brought to the USA and settled,” he said. The second group consisting 170 people arrived in Sri Lanka in 2013. Subsequently, they were sent out of the country by 2015 with the assistance of the UNHCR, Mr. Dias said.
“Although being a part of neither the UN Convention nor the Protocol relating to refugees, the country has a moral responsibility to accept such helpless people. How should we forget that close to one million Sri Lankans are living in many countries around the world as refugees? During the bloody stages of the war against the LTTE, many Sri Lankans fled the country, seeking refugee status in other countries. Suppose, we go to someone’s house, eat well and get treated very well. But, when the people from that house visit our place, we just evict them. How cruel is this? We should be grateful to the world for providing shelter for our people who were desperate at times,” Dias remarked. He said that the Rohingyas in the country won’t be settled here.
Alleged politics behind monks going amok
Meanwhile, the counsel appearing on behalf of the Rohingya group, Shiraz Noordeen told the Daily Mirror that he wished to continue the battle until justice for the Rohingya people is served. He stated that the incident that occurred in the Mount Lavinia safe house was a black mark against the country’s international image.
“It was disheartening to see how those people reacted calling these unfortunate people ‘terrorists’. It came as a shock. We all know that the incident was politically motivated. Why are these people not raising voice when millions of Sri Lankans are employed as housemaids and labourers in the Middle East? This issue isn’t about the race, religion and language of these people, but the identity of Sri Lanka as a nation and how the country should react during this kind of situation,” he remarked. He said they were coordinating with the UNHCR to accelerate the process and send the people to a third country as soon as possible.
Accepting refugees annually
National Peace Council (NPC) Executive Director Jehan Perera, was of the view that Sri Lanka, as a country which has been a beneficiary of the UN on a large scale, has an obligation towards assisting unfortunate people of other countries when there is a need.
“We have a duty towards accepting a specified number of refugees and provide them with the necessary assistance. We mustn’t turn them away when they come to us for help. The world has been so helpful to our refugees. In return, we have to be grateful for what the world has done. It’s a moral and ethical matter,” he said.
However, he said that as Sri Lanka is a poor country, where many social, political and economical issues remain unaddressed, only a limited number of refugees can be offered assistance because the Government can’t afford many.
“Over one million Sri Lankans enjoy the shelter of other countries as refugees. It is time to help other countries in return. People entertain fear in their minds. It is the Government’s duty to educate the people in order to clear the confusions. We need to see thoroughly whether this fear is real, imaginary or exaggerated by certain groups. I am sure that the people will understand if they are provided with true facts regarding these issues,” Perera said.
Muslims in Sri Lanka have no intention of settling the Rohingyas in Wilpattu or any part of the country. This issue should not create disharmony and a rift between Muslims and Buddhists in Sri Lanka - N.M Ameen, Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL)
Speculation regarding settlement in Wilpattu
The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) is of the view that it is important to view the Rohingya crisis not as a Muslim issue, but as a humanitarian one. MCSL President N.M.Ameen stressed that Muslims in Sri Lanka had no intention of settling the Rohingyas in Wilpattu nor in any part of the country. He said certain ‘racist’ groups had created an image that the MCSL along with other umbrella organizations representing the Muslims, are working on a conspiracy in supporting the Myanmar people. “The same extremist groups are attempting to create an ‘Islamphobia’ among the other communities,” he affirmed.
He stressed that it was unfair to call this helpless group of people terrorists just because some groups in their community created chaos in Myanmar. Ameen went on to state that none of these issues should create disharmony nor a rift between the races in Sri Lanka adding that the misunderstandings should be set aside with.
“Some racist groups are carrying out a campaign in social media that these Rohingya refugees will be settled in lands belonging to the Wilpattu sanctuary. It is nothing, but a stupid report with no basis,” he warned.
A call to solve our own issues
Responding to what MCSL President said, Sinhalese National Front (SNF) President Ven. Medille Pagnaloka Thera emphasized that they never considered the Rohingya issue as a religious issue, but as an issue related to refugees. He alleged that many parties were making a futile attempt to shift focus from the main issue towards an unnecessary angle. The Thera opined that Sri Lanka isn’t capable of facilitating refugees of another country due to it’s unstable economy and unbearable amount of debts and issues prevailing in the country.
Pagnaloka Thera said, before solving issues of another country, the Government should relocate internally displaced people who have been deprived of basic rights despite being citizens of the country. “We are still recovering from a 30-year terrorist conflict. At this rate, the whole country will become a refugee camp if we go on accommodating helpless refugees. This is a very bad example,” the priest remarked.
Threat to national security
Pagnaloka Thera alleged that the Sinhalese National Front along with its affiliated organizations is having suspicions regarding a conspiracy being hatched when considering the extra-special treatment given by umbrella organizations and NGOs, working in support of the Muslim community, to the Rohingyas. He was of the view that accepting Rohingyas and allowing them to live in the country for years possesses an alarming threat to the national security and also to the harmony between the communities of Sri Lanka.
If these Rohingyas were not discovered, they would have remained and slowly become part of the citizenry and then started increasing in numbers and make demands - Medille, Pagnaloka Thera Sinhalese National Front (SNF)
“If the people and the Bhikkus didn’t discover these Rohingyas they would have remained and slowly become part of the citizenry. They would have then started increasing in numbers and made demands and pose a problem in the future. The Government started talking about the group of Rohingyas only after our organizations seized the high-storey apartment in Mount Lavinia. Until then, the Government didn’t say a word when asked about the Rohingya issue. The official count of Rohingyas in the country is 32. How many uncounted Rohingyas might be living in other parts of the country? Except for the ones who support these people behind the scene, even the Government isn’t able to make a clear statement in this regard,” Pagnaloka Thera said.
What the Thera suggested the Government to do is urge the UNHCR to send the Myanmar refugees as soon as possible to another country. “The longer they stay here, more problems will be created in the country,” the priest said.
Ravana Balaya is also an organization against accepting and accommodating Rohingya refugees into the country. Its Secretary Ven. Iththakande Saddatissa Thera said that the Sri Lankan Government made a huge mistake by allowing the UNHCR to assist the Myanmar refugees.
The country is in need of a national policy with regard to refugees. There wasn’t even an official symbol of the UNHCR or the Sri Lankan Government on the walls of the shelter house where the Rohingyas were housed, the Thera stated.
He said that Ravana Balaya wasn’t against helping unfortunate refugees and they had no motive to drag the people from bad to worse. He pointed out that the Government should have kept the general public informed regarding the Rohingya refugee issue beforehand and if that had happened, the monks and the other people wouldn’t have gone amok, seizing the shelter house in Mount Lavinia.
According to the Thera, neither the Grama Niladari of Mount Lavinia nor the Officer in Charge of Mount Lavinia Police was aware of such Rohingya people staying in their area.
“We aren’t encouraging inhumane demeanor towards these stateless people. Even our religion and culture does not support such acts. But, the proud history of Sri Lanka demonstrates how Buddhist monks have taken the lead and opposed any activity that posed a threat on the nation. Why should we invite unnecessary problems to the country? We have ample issues to solve. We have suffered with a years-long conflict which originated due to disparities regarding race and religion.
Why should we invite unnecessary problems to the country? We have ample issues to solve. Since we learnt lessons from the past, we should be wise and careful - Iththakande Saddatissa Thera, Ravana Balaya Organization
Since we learned lessons from the past, we should be wise and careful in making decisions regarding these sort of issues,” the Thera remarked. He said that the Government should solve the problems related to the displaced people of the Aranayake landslide before solving problems related to people of other countries.
“We have also noted that there are attempts being made to damage our historic identity, our culture and traditions. We condemn the actions of some Islamic Ministers in the Government who are encouraging these illegal activities,” he said.
Sri Lanka stands by Myanmar
When it comes to the big picture regarding this issue, more than half a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar since August 25 following insurgent attacks on security forces which triggered a violent Government crackdown. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently described this move by the Myanmar Goverment as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Myanmar rejects the accusations of ethnic cleansing and has labeled the militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, who launched the initial attacks, as terrorists who have killed civilians and burnt villages. ‘Reuters’ reported that the United States and EU have been considering imposing sanctions against Myanmar military leaders, diplomats and officials.
As the issue affects Sri Lanka, Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe recently informed the media that the Sri Lankan Government stands by the position taken by the Myanmar Government with regard to the Rohingya crisis.
“Sri Lanka has strong bilateral relations with Myanmar. As a Theravadi Buddhist country, Sri Lanka has historical ties with Myanmar. We can relate the situation in Myanmar to what we experienced during the war time,” the minister noted.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (SLHRC) last week held an urgent meeting with several Ministries to discuss the incident involving Rohingya refugees. The Cultural Affairs Ministry, Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and the Ministry of Law and Order were among the institutions that participated in the meeting.
The Police Department, Prisons Department and the local representatives of the UNHCR had also been called for the meeting. Chairperson of the Commission Deepika Udagama said that the SLHRC will compile a report following the meeting and submit it to the Government.