The visa-on-arrival facility extended to citizens of several countries has made Sri Lanka a safe haven for refugees, asylum seekers and menial job hunters, an investigation by the Sunday Times has revealed.
The worst abuses have come from nationals of India and Pakistan. The Sunday Times learnt that the numbers staying illegally in Sri Lanka were in the thousands. One official estimate placed the number at anything above 20,000. However, Immigration Controller Chulananda Perera declined to disclose figures.
“We are carrying out certain checks on people illegally staying in the country. I cannot elaborate on the action taken as it would make it difficult to crack down on them.”
He said citizens from 85 countries were eligible for visas on arrival.
The largest number of illegal immigrants, the Sunday Times learnt, was from India and Pakistan. Most of them are known to be working in eating houses as cooks, waiters, labourers or domestics in several towns. Shockingly, the Sunday Times learnt these included those who come into Sri Lanka and go to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Colombo to register themselves as either asylum seekers or refugees. Thereafter, they move out to seek jobs.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Deputy Representative Jennifer Pagonis told the Sunday Times there were 210 asylum seekers and 146 refugees from Pakistan. She said at present the UNHCR had 214 asylum seekers whose claims were being assessed and a further 205 recognised refugees.
A senior Immigration Department official said there were illegal immigrants staying in Sri Lanka with or without registering with the UNHCR. He said the problem with those who were registering themselves was a serious issue.
“The UNHCR does not have camps where it could house and care for either the asylum seekers or the refugees. These people give an undertaking to the UNHCR but later go for jobs,” he said.
Ms. Pagonis confirmed that during their stay in Sri Lanka, both asylum seekers and refugees find their own accommodation. Both these groups of individuals are not permitted to engage in employment while in the country. Under agreement with the government, UNHCR informs all asylum seekers and refugees that they are required to follow the laws of Sri Lanka while they remain in the country and they sign individual undertakings to do so, she said.
These individuals, Ms. Pagonis said, come from a number of countries including Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Maldives and Myanmar. All asylum claims handled by UNHCR worldwide are treated with confidentiality, she said. Under its agreement with the Sri Lankan government, and as Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees the UNHCR in Sri Lanka carries out refugee status determination for non-nationals who approach it seeking asylum.
UNHCR registers these individuals and assesses each case to determine whether an individual is a refugee or not. This process is carried out with the full knowledge of the relevant government institutions while maintaining individual confidentiality, she added.