Refugee agency says Lanka violating international law but Immigration Chief defends the move

The UN’s refugee agency has sought an explanation from the Sri Lankan Government why large numbers of Pakistani asylum seekers are being arrested and detained – with local and UN officials making conflicting claims on the issue. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also warned the Government that any deportations or expulsions would be in violation of international law – a principle called “non-refoulement”, which forbids the handing over of victims of persecution to their persecutors.

The UNHCR has sought access to Pakistani asylum seekers in Government custody and urged the authorities to stop their deportation. The UNHCR at a meeting with Colombo-based diplomats on Wednesday asked them also to take up the issue. Since June 9 this year, the police, with the assistance of the Department of Immigration and Emigration, have arrested and detained a large number of Pakistani asylum seekers and refugees in Negombo and Colombo. It follows a government decision to return them to their countries of origin, Immigration Controller Chulananda Perera said.

Investigations had revealed that many of these asylum seekers were involved in drug peddling and other illegal activities, Mr. Perera said. “Those against whom substantial evidence is found will be sent back,” he said. According to UNHCR figures, 142 Pakistanis were reported to be in detention as at June 17. Of these, 141 are at the Boosa Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) detention facility while one is at the Mirihana Immigration and Emigration detention unit.

All of them are males and a majority from the Ahmaddiya community. There are also a few Christians and Shia Muslims, according to UNHCR sources. Among them are three men with medical conditions and two who are differently-abled, they said. One is a 17-year-old minor.

The decision to deport the Pakistanis came after India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the matter with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as revealed exclusively in the Sunday Times political commentary last week. During talks in New Delhi on May 27, he expressed concern over Pakistani militant groups gathering in Sri Lanka to plan terrorist acts against India. He also alluded to the possible presence of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agents here. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had told Premier Modi he would look into it upon his return.

The UNHCR in Colombo is not aware of any concrete decision that has been taken by the Sri Lankan Government regarding the Pakistani asylum seekers who are registered with the UN agency, UNHCR Resident Representative Golam Abbas said. “We have had discussions with different agencies of the Government regarding the issue. We are cooperating with the Government to find a fair solution,” he said.

But there are strong differences of opinion between the Immigration Department and the UNHCR on the arrest and detention of persons listed with the agency as asylum seekers. Such registration was made possible by a 2005 agreement between the Government and the UNHCR. This allows registered asylum seekers to stay in a host country until their cases are processed and they are relocated to a third country.

The UNHCR emphasises that the ongoing operation was against the spirit of international refugee protection and law. Immigration chief Perera countered, however, that the agreement bound the UNHCR to notify the Immigration Department when asylum seekers arrived in Sri Lanka. The agency was also obligated to ask the Department if it had objections to an individual remaining in the country.

“We have objected to this but our objections have never been considered,” Mr. Perera said. “Thus, it is the UNHCR which has violated the agreement, not us.”
The External Affairs Ministry endorsed the actions of the Immigration authorities. “The decision was taken to safeguard national security,” the ministry’s Public Communications Director General A.M.J. Sadiq said. “These asylum seekers are creating local issues which should be curtailed.” It was also necessary to stop the abuse of the on-arrival visa facility, he said.

The UNHCR has been in contact with the authorities since June 10, according to authoritative sources. This includes the EAM, the Ministry of Defence, the Chief of National Intelligence and the Immigration Department. No “real explanation” was given for the clampdown while letters sent to the EAM with copies to relevant authorities have gone unanswered, they said.

The UNHCR headquarters in Geneva is being updated regularly on the developments. The local office has also held discussions with community and religious leaders. A discussion with the Chief of National Intelligence and Immigration officials at the Ministry of Defence this week did not result in “a clear reason” being given for the ongoing arrests and detentions.

As at Friday, 1,450 Pakistanis were registered with the UNHCR as asylum seekers, official statistics from the Department of Immigration show. UNHCR figures at the end of May stood at 1,547 asylum seekers and 291 recognised refugees in Sri Lanka.