Sri Lanka a popular transit point for asylum seekers
The Sunday Observer in a recent issue highlighted that Sri Lanka has
recorded a staggering 13,365 foreign visitors who have not emigrated in
the past two years. Apart from those who come for pleasure or business,
the figure had significantly increased by the recent groups that
temporarily arrived in search of political refuge in a third world
asylum seeking group attending a mass in Negombo
asylum seeker boarded on a flight
|A couple prior
to be removed
asylum seekers outside UNHCR Office in Colombo
In other words, Sri Lanka has become a popular transit point for
asylum seekers, who would wish to remain until they get internationally
endorsed refugee status in a fully fledged European destination.
Being a facilitating country for those who wished to apply for asylum
in another country is not a question as Sri Lanka abides by the
customary international laws of non-refoulement (no forced returns) to
countries where people face imminent risks.
But the matters got worse, according to the local immigration
officials, when an influx of asylum seekers in the guise of potential
tourists from the regional neighbouring countries, pointed out a
reasonable doubt whether the intentions of majority of such visitors to
use Sri Lanka as a transit point were genuine.
Although the process to understand whether an asylum seeker was
genuine or not is something that could only be determined by an
international agency such as the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR), Sri Lanka as a country and all its local law
enforcement agencies possess a right to determine whether this is a ruse
or not. Because genuinely seeking asylum and commercially driven
transnational human smuggling syndicates is divided by a thin line only.
According to intelligence reports prepared by the Department of
Immigration and Emigration 1,056 tourists have arrived in the country up
to October 31 in search of asylum in a third world country. Out of this
most number of people had come from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
An officer who wished to remain anonymous told the Sunday Observer
that the first thing those who manage to enter the country through the
gates of immigration at the airport in the guise of unsuspecting
tourists would do is to register themselves as asylum seekers with the
UNHCR office in Colombo.
Once they are registered with the agency a file is opened for each
and every visitor who would be then exempted to live in the country
(under the international convention on refugees and asylum seekers)
until they are recognised as genuine asylum seekers and endorsed by the
authorities as refugees. This will take some time and due to the growing
number of visitors in search of temporary shelter, the process may not
move as fast as it is expected.
Until a person's genuineness is determined that person will live in
the country with no external support but with the mere funds he or she
possessed at the time they arrived in the country. And it is not once or
twice that such temporary asylum seekers were apprehended for unlawful
activities such as credit cards scams for desperately attempting to find
an earning to pay off their living expenses in Sri Lanka.
According to statistics, out of the 1,056 registered asylum seekers
in the country at present 915 are from Pakistan, 119 from Afghanistan,
six from Syria, five from Iran, four from Maldives, three from Tunisia
and from Iraq, Palestine, Ukraine and Yemen.
The UNHCR in Colombo had endorsed 424 persons with refugee status
await their turn to be departed to their desired destination. Out of
this 302 were from Pakistan, 87 from Myanmar, 15 from Palestine, 13 from
Afghanistan, four from Iran, two from Maldives and one from Somalia.
However due to the growing number of asylum seekers and the fresh
move by the Ministry of External Affairs to address potential human
smuggling attempts the Department of Immigration received orders to send
all the asylum seekers back to their respective countries despite their
When this was progressing the department received orders from a top
intelligence body to exempt those who had been endorsed by the UNHCR as
refugees. Since August the department had removed or sent back 343
Pakistani and 68 Afghan registered asylum seekers to date. However, due
to an unexplained reason the dispatching process has now been stalled
for a while.
The immigration officials who were duty-bound to follow the verbal
orders received from their immediate superiors have been baffled by the
latest series of events that virtually hindered them from performing
The attempts to send back groups of rounded up asylum seekers had
been avoided by last minute orders that did not look nice either on the
department officials as well as on a foreign policy of the country. On
several occasions the groups that were accompanied even up to the
boarding gates of the airport to be escorted to the aircraft bound for
their country of return were blocked by last minute orders to release
The immigration officials who went through numerous challenges in
rounding up such individuals could not do much but to place a rubber
stamp in the foreign passports cancelling the removal and departure from
the country. The groups were then freed to go wherever they wished to.
Interestingly the group being apprehended by the immigration
officials would immediately get a refugee status from the UNHCR within
moments after the arrests. Groups that are being taken into custody and
being brought to the department detention centre in Mirihana receive
refugee status within two hours.
It was doubtful whether the so-called international agencies for
refugees would really look into the genuineness of these registered
asylum seekers and study their cases one by one to grant them refugee
status in such a rapid manner. (Efforts made by the Sunday Observer for
an insight into this matter was futile as no spokesperson on behalf of
the UNHCR Colombo was available for comment).
It was then only found that certain underlying groups or individuals
back these foreign asylum seekers in Sri Lanka who may seem to have a
close understanding with the UNHCR office in Colombo.
Groups that would act as facilitators to find shelter, food, medical
and other basic needs of the asylum seekers arrive in the country on a
daily basis as tourists. And no service comes free from these good
Samaritans for these foreigners during their temporary stay in the
Intelligence reports have found several facilitating groups in
Negombo and Panadura areas who would especially back Ahmadiyya and Shia
Muslims from Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Christians from
It is not that the local immigration authorities are too heartless to
admit the genuine plight of a few honest people who had faced
persecution in their respective countries.
But an emerging trend of trafficking humans to developed western
lands such as Canada, Switzerland and Norway under the label of innocent
asylum seekers, through the facilitating countries like Sri Lanka is a
matter that has to be taken into serious consideration in no time, the