COLOMBO/GENEVA - The UN refugee agency accused Sri Lanka on Saturday of failing to respect international law by deporting Afghan and Pakistan refugees before their asylum claims could be assessed.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Sri Lankan authorities arrested 214 Afghan and Pakistani nationals in an operation beginning on June 9, who are currently being held at two detention centres.
Eighteen Pakistani asylum seekers have been deported in the past two days, with 10 more facing imminent expulsion, it said in a statement, in violation of its international obligations. ‘UNHCR is dismayed by these actions of the government of Sri Lanka,’ the statement said. ‘The deportation goes against the principle of no forced return, or non-refoulement, enshrined in international customary law.’
The agency added that returning an individual to a country where he or she would face a risk of torture was also prohibited under the UN's Convention Against Torture. Hundreds of Pakistani Christians and Afghans fleeing persecution in their countries have been arriving in Sri Lanka seeking UNHRC protection in the capital Colombo. Sri Lanka defended the action taken against the asylum-seekers, saying that a state's responsibility to international obligations had to be ‘nuanced and balanced in the context of domestic compulsions.’
The Sri Lankan government also blamed people trafficking networks for the recent rise in asylum seekers reaching its shores. Sri Lanka's External Affairs Ministry also accused the UNHCR processing asylum claims too slowly, and of not taking responsibility for repatriating those whose refugee claims were rejected. Sri Lanka's Ministry of External Affairs said the number of refugees or asylum seekers had risen by 700 percent in the 2013-2014 period. By June 30 there were 1,562 asylum seekers and 308 refugees, it said.
‘These asylum seekers are being encouraged to return, in the vital security interests of Sri Lanka and the region,’ it said. ‘It may be noted that in some cases, resettlement applications have been pending for over five years,’ the ministry said. The ministry added there had been a dramatic increase in the number of Pakistani and Afghan asylum seekers arriving on the South Asian island in the past year. As of the end of June, there were 1,562 asylum-seekers and 308 listed as refugees.
‘Investigations have revealed that the sudden increase in the number of asylum seekers in Sri Lanka was as a result of people falling victim to commercially driven human trafficking networks,’ it said. The influx of asylum seekers had led to ‘serious law and order, security, as well as health-related issues for the authorities.’
In April, the authorities found 10 cases of malaria among the asylum seekers at a time when Sri Lanka was under consideration for World Health Organization certification as a nation free of the disease, the ministry said. Sri Lanka recently tightened visa restrictions on Afghan and Pakistani nationals in a bid to discourage asylum seekers arriving on the island.