Myth-busting Sri Lanka’s Refugee situation | Sunday Observer

Myth-busting Sri Lanka’s Refugee situation

After the Easter Sunday attacks 1200 refugees and asylum seekers in Sri Lanka were faced with new problems. Many were attacked and evicted from their homes. Many left out of fear. Now they are staying in mosques and centres across the country. One group is stranded at the Negombo Police station. Individuals have spread rumors and myths about this community which fled their countries.

Myth 1: Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Sri Lanka are all Muslim and all are from Pakistan.

Refugees and asylum seekers are primarily from Pakistan and Afghanistan with some fleeing Iran. They are either Christian or belong predominantly to the Muslim Ahmadi, Shi’a and Sunni sects. Patrick Joseph is a Christian asylum seeker staying at the Negombo Police Station. “My family and I, we are sixteen people. Some women here are pregnant as well” he explained. “We are Christian, we ask that the Church please help us in this situation.”

Myth 2: Refugees and Asylum Seekers are actually in Sri Lanka because they just want to go to America.

In reality, refugees and asylum seekers come to Sri Lanka because they are persecuted and killed for their religion in their country of origin. Many of them have sought refuge in countries other than Sri Lanka before coming here. Shaima Mousavi* whose family are Hazara Shi’a Muslims from Afghanistan said that she fled to Iran before coming to Sri Lanka. “They killed us like animals, so we had to run” she says as she swats the mosquitos off of her two-year old son. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the UN agency in charge of protecting and processing asylum seekers. Asylum seekers must be certified by the UNHCR as refugees before they can be naturalised in any country. Sri Lanka has allowed refugees and asylum seekers to stay in the country under the UNHCR banner only until they find a country to permanently reside in. The reason they move to countries like America and Canada, then, is because Sri Lanka is not willing to fully accept them—they cannot work or send their children to school in Sri Lanka. “This is a nice country, but we can’t stay here permanently”, Mousavi explained. “Now we are in this police station garage and all my children are sick from living outdoors for almost one month now. We ask that the UNHCR please speed up our documents because we are really suffering.”

Myth 3: Refugees and Asylum Seekers get benefits from the Sri Lankan government that even Sri Lankan’s do not receive.

The Sri Lankan government does not provide any money or supplies to refugees and asylum seekers. They receive a monthly stipend from the UNHCR. A Police Officer of the Negombo Police station said that they face many burdens. “Water, sanitation, food are all problems. We share all our facilities” he said. “Some NGOs are helping but the Government has not given anything extra to us during this time. We ask that the community understand these people are human beings and we must protect them under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).”

Myth 4: These people are the foreigners who helped with the Easter Sunday Bombings. They only arrived here a few months ago.

There is no connection between the refugees and the attacks.

The Easter Sunday attacks were carried out entirely by Sri Lankan citizens. There are about 150 people in Sri Lanka who have been trained by ISIS—almost all of them are Sri Lankan citizens. Rupus Fernando, a resident of Negombo who sheltered some of the refugees vouched for them. “Most people from Negombo are peace-loving and understand that the refugees are innocent” he said, “Only some people are causing problems for political reasons.” Refugees and Asylum Seekers have been coming to Sri Lanka for up to fifteen years. Maryam Akhlaq*, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan who came in 2015 said “we were so sad to hear about the bombing. We are also running away from a situation like that, so we know how hard it is. We condemn it.”

Myth 5: Landlords kicked these people out for a reason. They must have known they were dangerous.

Many landlords did not want to evict their tenants. Instead, groups of people came to their house and threatened both the tenants and landlords. Therefore, the refugees and asylum seekers were forced to leave out of fear. Many landlords helped their tenants, escorting them to the police station. Jamila Ahmed*, the daughter of a family of five from Pakistan said that their landlords were good people who wanted to help them. “A few people came to the house and chased us out. Even now our landlord still brings us food and has kept all our things safely.” Another family said they had been invited to the wedding of their landlord’s daughter.

It is important that Sri Lankan’s understand these misconceptions. Luke David, an aid worker, says that misunderstandings have led to some problems. “We tried several times to move the people in the police station to somewhere with better conditions” he explained. “Many times, on the way the centre people call and say the community is protesting and that it is unsafe to come. At one time, Sarvodaya in Moratuwa agreed to take them but soon after they arrived we had to bring them back.”

But the situation has been improving. Some refugees from the Negombo Police station have been relocated to a rehabilitation camp in Vavuniya.They say that the facilities there are good.

Many religious institutions too have shown their support. Huthin Manoharan, Vice President of the Pastors Fellowship Mannar, said that they will welcome all those who fled their homes. “I don’t know if there is any country where Sri Lankan Tamils have not sought asylum as refugees” he explained. “Now as civil society we will show our love and cooperation to these people.”

Authorities must provide access to these supportive groups to interact and help these refugees. Building trust with the community is important to ensure that these refugee families can finally return to their somewhat ordinary lives.

(*Names have been changed)

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