Asylum Seekers: No Place To Call Home

People belonging to religious minorities in Pakistan who had been subjected to violence, inhuman treatments and prosecution based on their religious faith had been increasingly seeking help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) in Sri Lanka. They were hoping that the UNHCR would assist them to settle elsewhere in the world where they can breathe freely. However, despite their hope, many Pakistan asylum seekers in Sri Lanka claimed that their applications have been rejected by the UNHRC after hearing their cases.

During the last couple of years, Sri Lanka had been one of the popular destinations of these asylum seekers who sought for a shelter until the UNHCR processed their applications. However, the previous government of Sri Lanka developed a hostile approach towards the asylum seekers by cancelling on-arrival visas for Afghan and Pakistan tourists and by deporting the asylum seekers even though many were registered with the UNHCR. At that point, there was a court ruling, allowing the government to arrest detain and expel those seeking refuge. Even the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka dismissed a plea against the deportation of the Pakistan and Afghanistan asylum seekers in Sri Lanka leaving space for more hostility.

Controller General of Immigration and Emigration, M. N. Ranasinghe said that the Department of Immigration and Emigration no longer deports anybody if they possess documents issued by the UNHCR.

“They come to Sri Lanka as tourists and once they come here they register with the UNHCR. And only once they register with the UNHCR they are considered as asylum seekers. We do not deport anybody who has documents issued by the UNHCR. But foreigners who over-stay in the country without any valid document, violating visa conditions will be deported. This applies to everybody including Pakistan Nationals,” he added.

4-21Deputy External Affairs Minister Ajith P. Perera also said that even though there were some court orders related to asylum seekers in Sri Lanka during the previous regime, those were not blanket orders. He said that no one had taken up the issue about the Pakistani asylum seekers with the new government yet.

While the asylum seekers have little to fear in Sri Lanka as the Immigration Department has now stopped hunting them down, their grievances seem to be left unheard as the UNHCR has been rejecting a majority of their applications refusing to grant them refugee status.

Father Terance Bodiya Baduge, the Parish Priest of St. Sebastian’s Church, who has been supporting the community of asylum seekers, told The Sunday Leaderthat according to his knowledge most of the cases have been rejected. According to him, asylum seekers who had faced the UNHCR interviews have been complaining about the manner in which their cases were heard. “From what I gather, many people are being discouraged due to the manner in which inquiries are being carried out. The interviewers are asking people to give only yes or no answers without properly hearing them out. How can anybody explain their situation with yes or no answers?” he questioned.

He insisted that most of the cases that have been rejected are very genuine cases – he himself had come to know many of these asylum seekers over the last couple of years. He said that according to what they had told him and shown him, he believes that their stories are not fabricated but are sincere and genuine. He added that even though the UNHCR had given the chance for the people to re-appeal, people are in fear that their application would be rejected in the same manner. He reiterated that the UNHCR should give these people a proper hearing without letting them live on the edge.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, a Christian doctor from Pakistan who had fled Pakistan with his family as he was to be prosecuted under the blasphemy law said his case was heard on the 17th of this month and now awaiting a response from the UNHCR. He added that he was mostly asked questions with yes or no answers and there were several of other questions. Even though he had felt some hostility in the manner in which he was questioned, he added that probably the UNHCR has the right to ask questions in that manner. “Perhaps that is how they have to question to know if it is a genuine case or not. They are the experts and they probably have various methods of questioning. The problem is that there is a shortage of time. Perhaps, they cannot give more time to one case than what they have already allocated. Only if you live in Pakistan, you would know how religious minorities are being treated,” he added.

He said he was aware that the majority of the applications have been rejected and only during the last week he heard of 7 out of 8 rejected cases. However he said he did not know under what grounds, those applications were rejected but was crossing his finger that the UNHCR would get back to him with a positive reply. “Even though the department of immigration has stopped arresting the asylum seekers, we have many other grievances here. We have medical problems, financial problems and language problems. We expect the UNHCR to consider our cases seriously,” he insisted.

Reeta, one of the Pakistan asylum seekers whose application was rejected added that about 95% of the applications have been rejected by the UNHCR. According to her, they had rejected her application saying that they did not believe that she was tortured or threatened. They had also said that they did not believe her case to be true. She confronted that the behaviours of the interviewers were not good at all – they were humiliating, rude and condescending. “In fact, the interviewer told me not to waste their time because they have so many interviews and just say yes or no to the questions he asked. How are they going to understand my case with yes or no answers? I have to tell them in detail what really happened,” she said.

She claimed that it had not been very easy for any of them to leave their country but they had made that move as there was no other choice. “I have been here in Sri Lanka for about 23 months with no employment or help form anyone. “We are people who are persecuted simply because of our religious faith. We have come here asking for help – but it seems we are on our own,” she sighed.

Harris Javed another asylum seeker whose application was rejected said that initially they were in a shelter provided by the Pakistan Europe Christian Association (PECA) but they had to find a house for rent – and they had been living off their own money with a lot of struggle. After nearly two years of waiting, their application had now been rejected and he said they did not have the courage to re-appeal for fear of refusal once again and  leaving them with no place to go.

Meanwhile, a UNHRC spokesperson said that the UNHCR conducts refugee status determination for asylum seekers who seek registration with the Office,  there are specific international standards,  refugee status determination criteria and procedures that need to be met within this process.

“UNHCR applies these in determining who among those have sought asylum are in need of international protection and are refugees as defined in international Refugee law,” UNHRC clarified.

In response to complaints on the interview process, the spokesperson said that duly qualified and properly trained staff of UNHCR interview asylum-seekers individually in order to determine fully their claims in a fair and efficient manner. “As mentioned earlier, there are specific standards and procedures that need to be followed in the process. In the course of an interview, the individual asylum-seeker is provided an opportunity to express her/his circumstances in her/his own words,” the spokesperson added.