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
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
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
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
“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