A World Refugee Day came and went on June 20 without much ado. Sri Lanka has the unique distinction of being a refugee exporter and refugee importer, so to say. Additionally, it is also a country that has its own domestic refugees, known as IDPs (Internally Displaced People). Thus, it is a subject that the [...]


Refuge for refugees


A World Refugee Day came and went on June 20 without much ado. Sri Lanka has the unique distinction of being a refugee exporter and refugee importer, so to say. Additionally, it is also a country that has its own domestic refugees, known as IDPs (Internally Displaced People). Thus, it is a subject that the country is all too familiar with and there probably does not need to be a single day to commemorate this event; every day is a Refugee Day in Sri Lanka.

The first exodus of Sri Lankans began with the minority Burgher community who believed Independence ended the privileged role they had under colonial rule mainly because of their knowledge of English. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 proved to be their nemesis and in its wake, many migrated, mainly to Australia. They, however, continued to be loyal to Sri Lanka wherever they settled.

Though Sri Lanka was an attractive place for South Indians to live in the 1960s, the first wave of the ‘Brain Drain’ began in the same period with middle-aged and young professionals looking for opportunities in the more affluent countries on the pretext of ‘educating their children’.

The water-shed year was 1983. The race riots in July that year saw an exodus like never before. It was the first time Sri Lankans became refugees abroad. Many of them, not all, turned out to be hostile to the land of their birth. Thousands also exploited the situation to become ‘economic refugees’ and that group later included those from the majority community also.

‘Ethnic traffic’ became the lexicon in the airline business and Sri Lankans began hopping from one country to another as border control officers began issuing warnings to look out for Sri Lankan illegal immigrants. Countries began clamping tough visa restrictions and the Sri Lankan passport soon was not worth the paper it was printed on. Not to be outdone, many began leaving without passports, by boat, across perilous seas in search of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Success stories intermingled with tragedies and bogus job agents cashed in.

Media headlines still dominate the news in Europe and Australia of not just Ethiopians, Somalis and the like, but Sri Lankans trying to flee the ‘Miracle of Asia’ and ending up in refugee centres only to be sent back.Roles have been reversed as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned. Those who left the Northern Province due to the ‘war’ remain there – unhappy, but safe. Many have been ‘refugees’ for a generation.

The other side of the coin is Sri Lanka hosting refugees from other countries. If people from the sub-continent saw Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) as an economic El Dorado at the beginning of the 20th century, today we have a couple of thousand asylum seekers and refugees in the country, mostly from Pakistan.

When President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in India for the swearing-in of new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he was somewhat taken aback when told that Pakistani Jihadists had infiltrated Sri Lanka as asylum seekers to cause terrorist acts in southern India. The shoe was now on the other foot as Sri Lanka faced the global scourge of terrorist infiltration of its sovereign borders. And while its Navy was out at sea on the look-out for Sri Lankans leaving the country’s shores for greener pastures, its airports were on the look-out for bogus asylum seekers. An immediate probe was launched at the highest levels of Government to ascertain the veracity of the Indian claim.

In addition to this investigation, Sri Lanka shut the door on Pakistanis seeking asylum here for alleged religious persecution back home. Visas by internet were stopped to make screening more effective and life more difficult for those coming in. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Colombo was blamed for not following procedures of prior notification to the Government before issuing refugee certificates to those who had already landed. Some arrests, mainly of male Pakistanis, and deportations also took place in addition to detentions at the Boossa camp.

The UNHCR in a briefing note on the subject dated two days before World Refugee Day, says that the “refugee community (in Sri Lanka) is in distress… and fear of what may happen in the future”. It complains that the Sri Lankan Government is not providing it with adequate information.

There is a danger of even this issue getting internationalised. Already, the UNHCR office in Colombo has alerted its headquarters in Geneva. Thus, the entire issue of refugees and asylum seekers can easily get caught up as an issue that is already internationalised making it yet another domestic problem to deal with. As if this country does not have more than its share of problems already.

European countries once sympathetic to overseas refugees because of their own experiences in the years around World War II have now lost patience with the influx of so many to their countries. Anti-immigration political parties in Europe are gaining currency with the local constituencies, some of whom want the boats carrying refugees sunk in mid-sea. The Syrian refugee problem is the biggest of international issues.

Neither the UNHCR nor the ‘International Community’, the euphemism for the Western nations, has come up with any durable solution to this vexed and on-going global issue, in which Sri Lanka now seems to be getting unwillingly embroiled.

Then, we come to the last but not least; the IDPs, who officially number 23,658 (according to the Rehabilitation Ministry). The majority are in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Trincomalee. In Jaffna they have lost their lands, in Kilinochchi the de-mining process is still in progress and in Trincomalee their lands have been vested with the Government, for various projects including the Sampur coal-power plant that the Indians are pushing for.

The Government needs to be commended for rehabilitating thousands of IDPs in so short a time after the end of the ‘war’ in the North. The de-mining process is no mean task. And yet, the question of IDPs must be fully resolved as part of the closure to that terrible separatist insurgency waged by the LTTE.

Spare a thought, therefore, for the hundreds of thousands of refugees worldwide; many of them Sri Lankans, and some who look to Sri Lanka as a safe haven. There are the miscreants among them, but the vast majority of them living in difficult conditions and fearful about their fate, are often a forgotten lot.

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