Sri Lanka accused of failing to ensure accountability for attacks on refugees and asylum-seekers

Six months after they were violently forced out of their homes, there has been no police investigations into and no accountability for the threats and violence faced by refugees and asylum-seekers in Sri Lanka, Amnesty International and Minority Rights Group International said in a new report published today.

In the days after the Easter Sunday massacre, where an armed group killed more than 250 people in three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka, armed mobs mounted reprisal attacks on refugees and asylum seekers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Even after they sought shelter in nearby community centres and a police station, the mobs attacked them, hurling stones in one case.

In the report, Unsafe at home, unsafe abroad: State obligations towards refugees and asylum-seekers in Sri Lanka, Amnesty International and the Minority Rights Group International say that the authorities failed to offer the refugees and asylum seekers adequate protection and living conditions and failed to investigate the attacks and bring all those suspected of criminal responsibility to justice in fair trials.

“The refugees and asylum-seekers in Sri Lanka who came under attack have had a trauma visited upon them twice. They were first forced to leave their own countries, and now, in the country where they sought safety and shelter, they have had to leave their homes once again. They languish in limbo, still fearful for their safety and uncertain of what is to come,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, South Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.

“The attacks against these refugees and asylum-seekers have yet to be investigated and no one has been held accountable. The Sri Lankan authorities must uphold their international obligations to protect their human rights and the international community should expedite their resettlement process for those who are eligible so that they can finally find safety and their ordeal can come to an end,” said Joshua Castellino, Executive Director of the Minority Rights Group International.

Two days after the Easter Sunday attacks, a mob of “four or five men” showed up at the home of Farhan (not his real name), a Kashmiri from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. “They told us to leave,” he told the report’s researchers. “They hit us. Our landlord stopped the guys. He told them to let us go. They were shouting at us in Sinhalese, telling us to leave the country.” Farhan and his friends fled to a nearby police station.

Naila (not her real name), a Pakistani Ahmadi refugee, had found sanctuary in a community centre after being forced to leave her home with her family. There, witnesses said, passers-by were told to stop and join an assault on the community centre. The mob began throwing stones at the community centres, striking near where Naila and her family were. “You cannot imagine how we spent those two to three hours,” she told researchers. “Only God saved us that day.”

The refugees and asylum-seekers said they continued to face discrimination after the attacks. One asylum-seeker said, “We can’t live here. From a rickshaw driver to a doctor, we’re not treated as human beings. They tell us to leave.”

An Afghan refugee activist described their ordeal, where Sri Lanka no longer seemed safe as the very people who had fled the violence of armed groups as victims began to be blamed for the actions of the perpetrators.

“Now the people of Sri Lanka see refugees as a threat, no longer as [guests],” he said. “These people treat us like this because they don’t know what a refugee is.”

The Sri Lankan authorities failed to protect the refugees, to confront the mobs that threatened them, to investigate the attacks and to hold the perpetrators accountable.
They also failed to provide the refugees and asylum-seekers with adequate shelter. Forced from their homes, they squeezed into the garage of a police station and into community centres, where they lacked beds to sleep in, food to eat, adequate healthcare and sanitation facilities. At the Negombo police station, around 160 people spent nearly 30 days in appalling conditions.

The refugees and asylum-seekers were moved to a camp in the north of Sri Lanka, from where many have returned to their homes.

“The Sri Lankan authorities must make clear that violence against ethnic and religious minorities, particularly refugees and asylum-seekers, will not be tolerated and that anyone suspected of criminal responsibility for attacks against them will be brought to justice in fair trials”, said Dinushika Dissanayake.

“Sri Lanka is at risk of damaging its reputation as a country that welcomes those fleeing persecution elsewhere. The authorities must take urgent steps to guarantee the safety, dignity and human rights of all refugees and asylum seekers, ensuring that they are safe and have humane living conditions,” said Joshua Castellino.

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