Fate of Refugees and Asylum Seekers Hangs in the Balance
Photo courtesy of Ruki Fernando
The rescued people were handed over to the police, produced before the Mallakam Magistrate in the Jaffna district and detained as “suspects” in the Jaffna prison. It is not clear under what legal provisions they were detained or what crime they (including children) were suspected of, especially since they had not landed illegally or even tried to enter Sri Lanka illegally but had been brought in by the navy who had rescued them from a boat in distress. A navy spokesperson is reported to have stated that “this is not a criminal action”.
The imminent scaling down of UNHCR operations in Sri Lanka (some are calling it a closure) has worsened fears of refugees and asylum seekers whose lives have always been full of insecurity, fear and uncertainty about the present and the future. After having fled persecution in their own countries, some have faced re-displacement and evictions, detention and various forms of hostility during their stay in Sri Lanka. In the past there have been instances of deportations, including from the airport. They have also been struggling to survive in Sri Lanka with difficulties to find essential needs such as educating children, food, housing and medicine. The prohibition on engaging in meaningful employment have affected them financially and also in terms of mental health. According to UNHCR, as of February 28, 2023, 845 asylum seekers and refugees were reported to have been in Sri Lanka. But this excludes a few whose asylum claims have been rejected by UNHCR and those who are awaiting processing of their applications in the Canadian private sponsorship program.
A major concern of refugees recognised by UNHCR is speedy permanent resettlement with some refugees having been in Sri Lanka for about 10 years. In recent times, UNHCR has informed some refugees that it would not be able to facilitate permanent resettlement. Despite some recent increases, the monthly allowance the refugees get from UNHCR is inadequate for dignified living, especially in context of the massive increase in cost of living.