Police station garage becomes ‘home’ to 160 foreign refugees | Sunday Observer

Police station garage becomes ‘home’ to 160 foreign refugees

12 May, 2019
Refugees sheltering in the Negombo police garage  Pic : Ruki Fernando
Refugees sheltering in the Negombo police garage Pic : Ruki Fernando

Authorities struggle to relocate 1600 Pakistani and Afghan refugees under the care of UNHCR; for the moment, HQI Wootler and his men have provided sanctuary for 160 people fleeing their homes in the wake of the Easter bombings

Negombo HQI Fredrick U.K. Wootler.

For nearly three weeks, 160 men, women and children, Pakistani and Afghan refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries have found sanctuary only at the Negombo police premises garage.

The group is part of some 1600 asylum seekers and refugees who are in Sri Lanka under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) until they can be permanently relocated to other countries as migrants once their applications are processed. Most refugees are Christians or Ahmadiyya Muslims, both minorities in their home countries and often persecuted for their religious views. Some of the families have been living in Negombo for as long as three or four years. Everything changed for these refugees after the bombings on April 21.

In makeshift marquees, open on all four sides and exposed to sun and rain, the refugees have found shelter at the Negombo Police station, under the protection of Negombo HQI Fredrick U.K. Wootler.

UNHCR and Government officials tried to bus the refugees out several times, to different safe locations, but they were compelled to return when residents protested against the foreign nationals being housed in their areas in the wake of the Easter bombings. Each time they returned, HQI Wootler and his division have opened their doors again and again, and offered the refugees shelter.

Many of the refugees fled their homes in fear after mobs surrounded their houses and landlords expressed fear about renting their properties to Pakistani and Afghan nationals after a local terror outfit linked to ISIS carried out six simultaneous suicide bomb attacks on churches and five star hotels on April 21. Negombo, where over 100 people died when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives laden backpack at St. Sebastian’s Church during Easter Sunday mass, has remained tense since the attacks.

“Most of the men don’t sleep at night. How can they fall asleep after spending the whole day in here without doing anything? If this happens to us even we will be the same,” a sergeant attached to the Negombo police told Sunday Observer during a visit there last week.

As soon as the reports of mob attacks and threats started, local police in Katana and Negombo took steps to move the refugees out of their homes and into safer locations. For 700 Ahmadiyyas from Pakistan, that meant shelter for a day or two at the Jumma Mosque Road Ahmadiyya mosque in Negombo. Soon afterwards, the UNHCR and the Government made arrangements to bus them into a safer location outside Negombo. The Christian refugees now being sheltered at the Negombo Police were initially moved to a church, but were soon turned away. Every time they took a bus to leave the station and head to a safer place with better facilities, they were compelled to return in the face of opposition from residents in the area.

“We are a resilient nation but it must be understood that this involves reaction by the people. So it needs to be handled very delicately,” official of an organisation handling the relocation of refugees told the Sunday Observer.

According to Ruki Fernando, an activist working with the refugees there are expectant mothers as well as mothers who are nursing in the group.

“They came with whatever they were in and with a few belongings. Many of them had to stay in the same clothes they came in for the next few days until the UNHCR provided them with clothes,” Fernando said.

Police garage

In the garage that is open on two sides, and inside tents, pregnant women, babies and toddlers while away the days. When it rains, the ground beneath the tents get muddy and water-logged. Sanitation issues are also becoming a problem, officials say.

The Negombo Police garage is situated adjoining the living quarters of police officers. The three toilets available for the use of the police station are now shared with the 160 refugees. This is causing inconvenience and also concerns for hygiene and the spread of disease, since the facilities are not adequate to meet the sanitation needs of nearly 200 people.

Another constable who spoke to the Sunday Observer who was about to finish his day’s duty at 6pm and head to the quarters said that the toilets and the washing areas gets congested and all have to wait in line.

“There is no other place which is accepting these people so we can’t just send them off. We must ensure their safety as well,” the constable, who did not wish to be named since he was not authorised to speak to the media, said.

For the Negombo police, it has been a marathon since the attacks. The Division under HQI Wootler has been attending to the victims, providing security, planning the mass funerals, going on search patrols, unsettling clashes between groups in the community among other things and are now even housing refugees.

“The police officials are stretched to the maximum, I wouldn’t be surprised if any tension arises from this living situation. If something doesn’t happen soon, tensions will be on the rise. It is completely justified on the part of the police as they have gone out of their way to provide shelter and other facilities to these refugees. They now even help with the cooking using the provisions provided by the UNHCR. On top of attending to investigations, maintaining law and order in the area, they now have to accommodate these refugees,” Ruki Fernando said.

Health risks

The squalid living conditions have also resulted in health risks as well. According to several sources working closely with refugees there has been recorded incidents of viral fever and rashes doing the rounds.

In the Ahamadiyya mosque situated around two kilometres away from the Negombo police station another 300 refugees are housed in slightly better sanitary and housing conditions. According to one of the members of the mosque in charge, food and medicine is provided for them by the UNHCR. Several doctors have visited the said camps and gravely ill patients have been hospitalised.

Under the given conditions activists point out that it is necessary to house them at a more appropriate place immediately.

Ahamadiyya Mosque - Negombo

“Even in and around Negombo, there are plenty of government institutions with sufficient room to house these refugees however; relevant authorities have still failed to get a place to relocate these refugees,” Fernando said.

Speaking in Parliament State Minister of Finance, EranWickramaratne, said that out of the 1698 asylum seekers, 869 are already cleared refugees while 40 are unqualified and that they will be repatriated from Sri Lanka within the next few weeks.Wickremaratne was the only parliamentarian to raise an issue that has been burning on the sidelines of the Easter Sunday bombings, with most politicians preferring to distance themselves from the controversial issue, given the nationality of the asylum seekers concerned.

“These people have come here as religious and ethnic minorities,” said the State Minister for Finance in Parliament last week. “Their information is available with the defence authorities and the Foreign Affairs Ministry. They are cleared by the defenc.e authorities. Therefore, we need to look at these people as people who are fleeing persecution in their own countries,” Wickremaratne urged.

He further revealed that 416 have already been accepted by the United States of America, seven by Great Britain and three by France and 162 by the private sponsorship program of the Canadian government and a further 234 have been submitted for clearance.

“Therefore, we have about a 1000 of these refugees that Sri Lanka is systematically looking at sending them off to other countries permanently while observing international law ,looking at it with the UNHCR in actually finding countries to resettle them. There is nothing to be alarmed about this,” he explained.

The Government must ensure their safety until they can be safely relocated permanently, Wickremaratne added.