Sri Lanka urged to assist refugees living in dire conditions

The Sri Lankan Government must ensure that the more than 1,100 refugees and asylum-seekers forced from their homes by violent mobs in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacre are immediately provided with adequate security, food, shelter and healthcare, Amnesty International said today.

Living in fear of further attacks as anti-Muslim violence rises in Sri Lanka, these people are currently languishing in overcrowded community centres and a police station, offered to them in goodwill as places of temporary shelter. Amid dire conditions, they lack proper places to sleep, clean and adequate sanitation facilities, access to medical attention to treat illnesses that have proliferated in the makeshift shelters.

Targeted by mobs who blame them for the 21 April attacks that killed more than 250 people at three churches and three hotels, the refugees and asylum-seekers – many belonging to persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan – say they are reliving the horrors that forced them to originally flee their own countries.

“These are people who have been dispossessed twice now because of their backgrounds. They had hoped to find safety in Sri Lanka after fleeing the violence of bigoted mobs in their own countries. Now, they are faced with the same fears that forced them here, leaving them unable to leave their shelters where they languish in dire conditions,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International.

“The Sri Lankan government has a responsibility to ensure that these people have their dignity restored immediately. They need security to protect them, food to eat, doctors to meet their urgent health needs, comfortable places to sleep in privacy, and clean places where men and women can safely and separately bathe and use sanitation facilities.”

The refugees and asylum-seekers include Ahmadi Muslims, Shi’as and Christians from Pakistan, Shi’a Hazaras from Afghanistan, as well as political refugees from Iran and Pakistan.

In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims face official discrimination in the country’s laws and violence at the hands of armed groups. Pakistani Christians have been ensnared by the country’s vague and coercive blasphemy laws and some have suffered brutal attacks by mobs. In Afghanistan, sectarian armed groups have repeatedly targeted Shi’a Hazaras, including the so-called “Islamic State”.

Beginning on 22 April 2019, mobs of young and sometimes armed men began going door to door in the Negombo area, looking to evict refugees and asylum-seekers from Muslim-majority countries. Up to this point, refugees and asylum-seekers said they had lived peacefully in the area, only ever encountering occasional hostility.

The mood, however, changed after the Easter Sunday attacks, which included a large attack on Negombo’s St. Sebastian’s Church, where more than 100 people were killed. Some refugees and asylum-seekers told Amnesty International that a rumour spread in the Negombo area, claiming that Pakistanis were behind the bombings, unleashing violent mobs seeking reprisals.

“There was a group of men who came, some of them carrying sticks with nails in them. Some of them were drunk,” Naseem John, 57, a Pakistani Catholic from Karachi, told Amnesty International. “They said that we were Pakistanis and that we had to leave the area within two hours. We said that we are also Catholics, like the victims killed in the church. They said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you’re still Pakistani. You have to leave.’”

Refugees and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan told Amnesty International that, in several cases, their landlords intervened and pleaded with the mobs not to attack their tenants, and then helped their tenants to leave. Some Ahmadi Muslim women said that they had to leave in a sudden panic and, out of fear, they were not even able to take their scarves and other religious clothing with them.

The families received messages from within the community telling them to head to police stations and places of worship known to them. Numerous families said they struggled to find transport, with many taxi services refusing to take them – sometimes at the direct insistence of the mobs.

“When I had to leave my house in Negombo, I cried a lot,” said Nargis Alizada, a Shi’a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan. “It reminded me of the harsh reality of our situation that we are neither safe in our country nor here. I feel vulnerable and insignificant.”

On 25 April 2019, a mob of hundreds of people, including Buddhist monks, gathered outside one of the temporary shelters where the refugees and asylum-seekers had sought safety.

The mob shouted threats and hurled stones, some landing in the grounds of the community centre and even striking a building where women and children had taken shelter – traumatizing them once again.

“My daughter keeps shivering and has had fever since Thursday, when the mob was outside and began throwing stones at us. She keeps saying, ‘Are these the same bad men [from Pakistan]?’” said Afiya Aslam, an Ahmadi Muslim, whose family fled Pakistan after attacks on their mosque in Dhumial, Chakwal, in December 2016.

The events since 21 April 2019 have left many of the affected refugees and asylum-seekers too afraid to venture beyond their temporary shelters, and even feeling that they are no longer safe in Sri Lanka.

“We feel safe here [in the police station], but are too fearful to go outside. The police have said they can protect us here, but not outside,” said Habib-ur-Rehman, 35, a Pakistani asylum-seeker.

The UN refugee agency has so far unsuccessfully attempted to relocate some of the refugees and asylum-seekers to other locations inside Sri Lanka. They have been turned away three times.

A bus took some of the group as far as Colombo, but the police did not allow them to get off. On another occasion, some refugees and asylum-seekers were invited to take shelter at a church, but were confronted by an angry mob that included Buddhist monks.

On 8 May, in the town of Ambalantota, there was a demonstration against the presence of refugees and asylum-seekers.

The events since the Easter Sunday massacre have left refugees and asylum-seekers fearing for their safety in Sri Lanka, comparing this ordeal to the events that forced them to flee their own countries in the first place.

“This used to be a peaceful country, it’s no longer that way,” said Nobil John, 27, a Pakistani Catholic from Karachi. “We want security. We can’t go back [to Pakistan], and we can’t stay here anymore. If [armed groups] can attack other people, who will defend us? We want to go anywhere where we can live with peace and dignity.”

In the temporary shelters where they have sought safety, refugees and asylum-seekers are living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions without reliable access to basic services. They all sleep on the hard floor, with a thin plastic sheet or bedsheet under them, with no space to even turn. Those who are out in the open, sleep on wooden pallets to escape rain water.

At the police stations and community centres, every family speaks of at least one person who is ill.

People are suffering from fever, infections, respiratory illnesses or diarrhoea, and, especially among older people, high blood pressure. There are no adequate health facilities nearby, and the refugees and asylum-seekers cannot venture out by themselves. Medical officers visit the temporary shelter, albeit on an ad-hoc basis. One group of Pakistani men told Amnesty International they faced hostility from staff at Negombo hospital.

One mother was forced to give birth at the temporary shelter she was staying at before medical support arrived. Other women desperately tried to assist with the delivery – but none of them were trained and did not have required medical supplies for childbirth assistance. There are at least 15 pregnant women among the refugees and asylum-seekers.

At one location where more than 600 Ahmadi Muslims are staying, a woman was running around, desperately looking for someone to help her daughter who was suffering from diarrhoea. “There is no water left in my daughter’s body,” she told Amnesty international.

At a police station where more than 180 people have taken refuge, women have no privacy. At night, they are forced to sleep outdoors with a mere awning to shade them, and near unknown men. During the day, they do not feel comfortable lying down or resting with other men walking around them.  Lactating mothers say they don’t have private space to breastfeed their babies.

Women and men are forced to use the same one or two small bathrooms – comprising of a shower and a toilet – at the police station. There are no separate facilities.

With temperatures surging past 30 degrees centigrade and they are forced to sit, during the day, in the direct glare of the hot sun amid a swarm of mosquitoes. When it rains, they are prone to getting wet as the water on the ground rises to flood across the places where they sleep.

The rain brings other hazards with it. At one location, people said they have had to fend off snakes and porcupines that invade their shelters. Some of the refugees and asylum-seekers there have developed skin infections.

Many of the families said they could not afford to send their children to school; the few who do attend school have had their education disrupted.

Ahmadi Muslim women, many of whom are religiously observant, told Amnesty International that they were concerned about the ban on the niqab, or face-veil, introduced by the Sri Lankan government in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks.

In Sri Lanka, the Ahmadi Muslims could practice their religion freely, without fear of reprisals. Now, many Ahmadi Muslim women say the ban on the face-veil means that they will not be able to go out in public, even if it is to buy necessities for their families.

Despite their ordeal, many of the refugees and asylum-seekers told Amnesty International that they identified with Sri Lankans, following the Easter Sunday tragedy; they said they know how it feels to be targeted by armed groups because of their religious background.

“We share the pain that Sri Lankans are going through. We have lived with it for 40 years,” Jawid Akram Nazari, a Shi’a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan told Amnesty International. “We appreciate the support people have given us so far. I hope we improve the culture of tolerance and acceptance of each other and live together in peace…. We should be given the respect and dignity we deserve as humans.”

Amnesty International calls on the Sri Lankan government to:

  1. Provide effective security to refugees and asylum-seekers wherever they are staying;
  2. Relocate refugees and asylum-seekers for an interim period to temporary shelters where they are protected and where they can stay in safe and dignified living conditions;
  3. Provide these people with immediate medical care, food, sanitation, adequate temporary shelter and ensure that women and girls, especially pregnant women, have access to separate sanitation facilities and healthcare;
  4. Ensure that no refugees or asylum-seekers are forcibly returned to countries of origin or any other place where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations, which would constitute a violation of the international legal principle of non-refoulement.

Amnesty International calls on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to:

  1. Expedite asylum claims and appeals taking into account the needs of people at particular risk;
  2. Allocate the necessary resources to UNHCR’s operations in Sri Lanka, including the provision of protection officers and translators.

Amnesty International calls on the international community to:

  1. Increase the number of refugees it resettles from Sri Lanka considering the current situation and expedite the resettlement process;
  2. Explore alternative pathways for the refugees and asylum-seekers to secure a future outside of Sri Lanka, including community sponsorship, study visas, medical visas, work permits and emergency or humanitarian visas.

“The Sri Lankan government and the international community can turn around this appalling situation immediately, if they have the political will. We are not talking about a large number of refugees and asylum-seekers by any means. It does not take much to provide them with the security they need and the dignity they deserve,” said Biraj Patnaik.

“This could be a story Sri Lanka can be proud of. If they fail to act, however, this situation threatens to become a humanitarian tragedy that will shame Sri Lanka for years to come.”

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