Sri Lanka has long been one of the few countries to which Pakistanis could travel freely. But at the end of June it suspended their visa-on-arrival facility, signalling that things have changed. The new rules come against the backdrop of the arrest and detention of 144 Pakistani asylum-seekers and refugees over the past several weeks. The government has been tightlipped about the operation.
There are 1,397 asylum-seekers and 202 refugees of Pakistani nationality in Sri Lanka, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of them are from the Ahmadi community, considered apostate in Pakistan, but there are some Christians and Sunni Muslims too. Last year saw a steep increase in arrivals; in 2012 asylum-seekers of all nationalities totalled just 200, and refugees103, according to the refugee agency.
The spate of arrests has caused much anxiety among the Pakistani asylum-seeker community, most of whom live in the coastal town of Negombo, 38 kilometres north of Colombo. Reports say the detainees are to be deported, although the Controller of Immigration has refused to confirm this. The UNHCR said there had been no deportations as of 30 June 2014, but it has not been informed of the government’s intentions with regard to the detainees, nor the charges on which the arrests were made. The refugee agency facilitated the release of four of the refugees.
‘Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor its 1967 Protocol,’ says Dushanthi Fernando, a spokesperson for UNHCR. ‘The co-operation with UNHCR is based on the agreement signed between the UNHCR and the government of Sri Lanka in 2005 that contains references to UNHCR Statute, 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. In addition, Sri Lanka is bound by observance of the principle of non-refoulement that has attained the status of international customary law norm.’ This norm prohibits the return of refugees to territory where they face danger.
The Ministry of External Affairs does not agree. ‘Non-refoulement is part of the 1951 refugee convention to which we are not a party, so we are not bound by it,’ says AMJ Sadiq, Director General of Public Communications at the Ministry of External Affairs. He says that the visa-on-arrival facility, which allows a 30-day stay with the possibility of extension, was designed to promote tourism, but has been abused by some Pakistanis who used it to gain entry to the country and then walked into UNHCR to claim refugee status.
On 20 June, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited asylum-seekers being held at a detention centre in Boossa. Assistance in the form of hygiene items, clothing, recreational items and mats were given to them, according to Sarasi Wijeratne, spokesperson for ICRC in Colombo. Family visits are also being facilitated.
‘No-one wants to leave their motherland. All we want is safety for our lives and for our children to have a future,’ says Maria*, a physiotherapist who has been living for over a year with her husband and son in Negombo. Speaking on the phone, she explains that she is a Christian who engaged in evangelism and faced death threats in Pakistan. She said she had a clinic there, but had to keep shifting and eventually had to close it. ‘We have religious freedom in Sri Lanka,’ she adds.
The task of ascertaining the genuineness of an asylum claim is said to take up to two years. UNHCR says once people are recognized as refugees the agency supports them ‘until a durable solution is found for them’. This usually means relocation to a third country ready to accept them.
The asylum-seekers in Negombo are assisted by local mosques and churches in this predominantly Catholic town. ‘My concern is for the children – there are about 60 – with no proper school education,’ says Father Terrence Bodiya Baduge, the parish priest of St Sebastian’s church. He had arranged informal classes for the children with volunteers from among the asylum-seekers, but the school had to close when three of its five teachers were arrested during the recent roundup. An Urdu language mass held twice a month was also discontinued as people were too fearful to attend. It is possible that not all asylum-seekers’ cases are genuine, the priest observes, but humane considerations take precedence. ‘I’m helping them because they are human beings,’ he says.