No room at the inn’ - GoSL, UNHCR struggle to find sanctuary for foreign asylum seekers | Sunday Observer

No room at the inn’ - GoSL, UNHCR struggle to find sanctuary for foreign asylum seekers

Rights watchdogs and local activists have stepped up calls for broader measures to protect foreign refugees and asylum seekers in the island, even as the Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) grappled to find safe locations to house nearly 1000 Pakistani and Afghan refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries.

Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims, both minority communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan have fled their homes in Negombo after threats and intimidation in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings. The refugees are in Sri Lanka under the care of the UNHCR, until their asylum claims can be processed and they can be permanently relocated to countries willing to take them.

Over a hundred people are currently being given sanctuary at the Negombo Police Station, where officials are sharing their sanitation and other facilities. UNHCR and other aid agencies are providing meals and other needs for those being sheltered at the police station.

Several attempts to relocate the foreign asylum seekers to different safe locations have proved futile as mobs of people surround the safe-houses, churches or mosques and urge authorities to remove them from the area, aid workers engaged in the relocation efforts told the Sunday Observer.

Even churches are reluctant to keep Christian refugees, urging the UNHCR and the authorities to move them out to different locations as soon as possible. Ahmadi mosques have taken some Pakistani and Afghan refugees in, and the police and army are providing protection activists engaged in efforts to relocate the refugees said.

When the Government attempted to move all the refugees to an old rehabilitation center in Vavuniya, some local politicians and communities opposed the moves, prompting Tamil National Alliance Jaffna District lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran to make a statement on Facebook, denouncing the opposition when Tamils themselves had fled persecution during decades of civil war. People from Pakistan and other places, who have fled persecution by Muslim fundamentalists and taken refuge in Sri Lanka temporarily until the UNHCR processes their applications for relocation have suddenly been thrown to the streets by their landlords, Sumanthiran said.“Many of them are in the Negombo Police Station and the Government is trying to find safe places for them. I am hearing voices in opposition to them being housed in Vavuniya by some Tamil political leaders. This is most unfortunate. Tamils, of all people, should know the value of communities that have been willing to accommodate our people who fled persecution from Sri Lanka in various parts of the world,” the TNA legislator added.

Issuing a statement, New York-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, urged the Government to takes steps to ensure the safety of South Asian refugees and asylum seekers from violence in the wake of the Easter bombings. “Angry crowds have threatened and assaulted primarily Muslim South Asian migrants,” HRW said.

HRW said that media and local activists reported that nearly a thousand refugees and asylum seekers were displaced after landlords had come under local pressure to evict them. “Many have sought safety at nearby mosques or at the police station in Negombo. The authorities were forced to cease efforts to relocate them to suitable neighboring areas with proper facilities because of protests from local communities. Activists reported that on at least four occasions, busloads of frightened migrants, including many children, older people, and others with special needs, travelling to safer areas had to return to the overcrowded Negombo police station,” the HRW statement added. “Sri Lankan authorities not only have a responsibility to apprehend those responsible for the heinous Easter Sunday attacks, but also to protect all those now at heightened risk,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director. “This means not only providing safe and secure shelter for refugees and asylum seekers, but also taking prompt legal action against anyone who threatens them.”

Human Rights activist Ruki Fernando tweeted yesterday that Pakistani Ahmadi Muslim refugees were being persecuted in Pakistan and now again in Sri Lanka. “Infants as young as 15 days, pregnant and feeding mothers and men wearing same clothes for 10 days are forced to live in inhuman conditions amidst heavy rain,” Fernando said on Twitter.

[Photo courtesy: Ruki Fernando/Twitter]

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