Refugees: Homeless, friendless – secondary victims of Easter bombings | Sunday Observer

Refugees: Homeless, friendless – secondary victims of Easter bombings

The shock of the bombings was followed by weeks of panic, riots and rumours. Unknown to many, Negombo was also home to a small number of Pakistani and Afghan refugees. These people have now been victimised and rendered homeless.

Sri Lanka hosts around 1,450 foreign refugees and asylum-seekers from about 15 countries, of varying religious traditions. They have come to Sri Lanka seeking protection due to persecution faced in their own countries. Successive Sri Lankan governments have welcomed them to stay in the country temporarily, until permanent resettlement is found in other countries by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Sri Lanka has yet to ratify the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, with the UNHCR processing asylum claims in accordance with the agreement with the government.

Asylum-seekers and refugees are not given particular status by the Government of Sri Lanka and their presence in the country is tolerated until solutions are found. Their stay here is governed by the agreement between the government and UNHCR.

Until the events of Easter Sunday their stay had been uneventful. They felt safe, encountered no hostility and were indeed welcome, being regarded and treated as tourists.

After the attacks they started to face palpable hostility from the public, police and their landlords. Gangs of people went around seeking information on where these people were staying and then mobbing their residences. Houses were invaded and searched by gangs, landlords were questioned and threatened. In some instances the police were called to search premises, in other instances they accompanied the gangs.

Nothing incriminating was ever found but frightened landlords threw them out, almost overnight, even though they knew that these people were harmless. Some left only with the clothes they were wearing. These were people who were paying regular rent, not destitute people in shelters. Faced with eviction they hurriedly tried to seek other places, but none would have them. Even hotels refused them entry, the moment their country of origin was discovered. People, including families and children were left literally, on the street.

They went from place to place seeking accommodation but failed. Facing growing hostility and harassment from the public they congregated at the Negombo police station for safety. Having no other place they were eventually given shelter for the night in the garage of the Negombo police station. The garage is an open shed with no walls but subsequent attempts to rehouse refugees have been frustrated by protests by the local community in Pasyala, Athurugiriya and Moratuwa. Those objecting to their presence have included politicians and Buddhist monks. Mobs have threatened any institution that volunteered to host them and the police have been unable provide security.

Efforts to house them in Moratuwa and Athurugiriya had to be abandoned as police couldn’t assure safety. Efforts to house them in a school in Negombo also failed. In many of these cases, the refugees were transported in buses but had to be returned after a few hours. In two instances they were returned after a night. In one instance, the bus carrying the refugees had to turn back part way as they received news that a hostile reception awaited

It is understandable that following the attacks people will panic and security will be tightened. There is no objection to the police or security forces searching premises or questioning people, following standard protocols. There is a huge difference with the police doing this and a mob doing this.Gangs of individuals have no right to enter, search, threaten or evict people. In a lawful state, the monopoly on the use of force rests solely with the state, it is only they who may conduct this. Indeed it is the duty of the police to protect people from intimidation and harassment. Second, even if a premises is searched, further investigation is only necessary if something suspicious is discovered. Suspects could be detained, if there is good reason. There is no justification for ejecting people from their homes for no reason.

The bombings were all carried out by Sri Lankans. Many of the Pakistani’s evicted were in fact Ahmedi’s (a sect regarded as apostates) and Christians who had fled due to persecution in Pakistan. Some of the Afghan’s were also from obscure sects while others were fleeing the Taliban. Far from being potential terrorists, they themselves were victims of terrorism. The refugees are in makeshift accommodation not intended for human habitation lacking proper sanitation facilities. Conditions are squalid, cramped (eg people sleeping on chairs in the police garage) and fast deteriorating. Infrastructure is under severe strain.

The government, having failed in its primary responsibilities of maintaining the peace and upholding the law should, even at this stage take the initiative to provide these unfortunates with shelter and medical attention.