Another group of people have become collateral damage of the waves of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka following the April 21st, Easter Sunday carnage. They are refugees and asylum seekers and the challenge they face now is a culmination of a growing global environment that is hostile to refugees, the limited ground presence of the UNHCR, as well as the dysfunction of the Sri Lankan government. However, the most pressing issue at the moment is one of law and order, of protecting the refugees, thus laying the immediate issue at the door of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremasinghe.
To understand the situation, we must first be aware that while the submission of the application is made by the UNHCR, it is the host country that finally chooses which candidate will be allowed into the country. The EU-28 resettled barely 24,000 refugees in 2017 (UNICEF). As Natascha Zaun, an expert in migration studies has noted, EU policies are increasingly influenced by national electorates that themselves are inclining more towards right-wing populist parties. In 2017, the UNHCR had submitted 26,782 applications to the United States, and 24,559 were allowed in (IOM). The Trump administration, motivated itself by right wing populism, has recently announced that it will make further cuts to resettlement quotas. Although Canada is among the friendlier of host nations, their resettlement level peaked in 2018, causing much discussion amongst conservative factions over the prudency of cutting down on quotas altogether (CBC).
The UNHCR is not the only organisation that resettles refugees and asylum seekers. Many countries use other or additional channels to choose resettlement candidates; refugees may be proposed for resettlement by international NGOs, for example, or through embassies abroad.
With the approval process taking long, many refugees begin to feel settled in their transit country, in this case Sri Lanka.
The resultant tensions and anti-Muslim sentiments that followed the Easter Sunday bombings forced them to flee from their temporary homes. Homeowners have been pressured to ask them to vacate their houses. Some had their homes attacked; others were beaten by unknown persons. One gentleman described to me how a group stormed into his room, pulled photos from his wall, rifled through his books and even dashed his Bible on the floor. Another lady described being asked to leave by her landlady before the mobs could descend. She had jumped into a trishaw with her four children and headed for the nearest safe space.
The refugees sought sanctuary in the police station. Most arrived in the clothes they were wearing, leaving behind whatever belongings they had. Since then, some mosques, church and other welfare groups have offered accommodation, but due to concerns expressed by local communities, and the challenges that the police face in providing protection, the refugees have been unable to stay at any of the places. In one case, the day after the group was settled in a place of safety, a mob led by two Buddhist monks had surrounded the place insisting that the refugees leave. In another instance, a local councillor had arrived at a school where the refugees were to be settled, and had demanded that the principal rescind the permission to allow the refugees in.
As such, this past week nearly 140 men, women and children have been at the police station. An additional 900 individuals are housed in two mosques, and the police is struggling to provide protection for them all.
Those at the police station are in a sorry state, prompting one of the Christian priests who have been helping out, to describe the situation as ‘brutal’. There are several young and breast feeding mothers who have special and significant needs. Some older ladies struggle with mobility issues and diabetes. There are widows, who complain that they fear for their safety, as they are forced to be in a crowd without a male protector.
There are young children who are running high fevers. Many others are unable to eat due to the stress of the situation. The heat, dust and mosquitoes have brought on rashes.
The only roof over their heads is the garage of the police station, and, at night, they sleep on thin rugs spread on the floor. The facilities for women are inadequate with no privacy for proper ablutions.
The local police have, thus far, provided a space for them to stay, but it is a visible inconvenience for police work and a strain on their resources. On one occasion the officer in charge refused to allow some refugees who were forced to leave their safe facility to disembark at re-enter the police station. The situation was defused, only after the intervention of a more senior officer and a protracted discussion between the volunteers and the police.
You may ask why the refugees are not being securely rehoused into a temporary shelter. The answer will not surprise you. In order for the police or the army to provide adequate security and thus assure any host of a safe relocation, there must be a protection order from the Office of the President. For reasons that this author will not speculate over, there seems to be deep reluctance from the President to issue the same. Both the governors of the North and the South have offered spaces in their provinces as temporary housing, but without the President’s ‘yay’ this cannot be done.
There are certain issues that need to be raised with regards to the UNHCR’s handling of this situation. Whilst UNHCR staff are petitioning the government at the higher level, and providing the funds for everyday supplies, their physical presence on the ground has been limited. Much of the day to day struggles and negotiations are handled by staffers of a local NGO and a relief organisation, as well as a handful of unaffiliated volunteers. These volunteers are activists, concerned citizens, and members of the clergy.
However, the here and now is the safety of these refugees. This, the Sri Lankan government is failing to provide, in the same way that it failed the Christian community on Easter Sunday. At this moment, there is a desperate need to provide safe, secure, clean and dignified housing for the refugees. In this time of crisis, what is paramount is showing our humanity by extending the arms of solidarity to those most in need, while the protracted official negotiations take its course. That the highest office in the land shows a reluctance to do this underlines the selfishness and myopia that has characterized the heart of the Sirisena- Wickremasinghe government.