Response to Inquiries on Asylum Seekers
The Ministry of External Affairs has received a number of inquiries on the return of individual asylum seekers, mainly of Pakistan origin.
Sri Lanka’s territory has been used by those seeking asylum for over a decade. However, the asylum seeker/refugee population in Sri Lanka witnessed a dramatic 700 per cent increase during the period 2013-14 and as at 30 June 2014, there are 1562 asylum seekers and 308 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 which abuse the liberal visa policy in place in the country exacerbated by a sharp increase in the numbers resettled in third countries in 2012. Regrettably, the process of resettlement slowed down considerably in 2013/14. It is therefore questionable whether they have a legitimate claim to seek asylum.
The influx of asylum seekers and their tendency not to have an established place of residence has resulted in serious law & order, security, as well as health related issues for the authorities. In fact, in April 2014, ten cases of malaria were detected among these asylum seekers. This detection was made at a time when Sri Lanka, having achieved zero indigenous cases of malaria for the past several years, was under consideration for obtaining WHO certification.
The Government of Sri Lanka, in keeping with its obligations under customary international law, has been engaging consistently with UNHCR to address and manage the asylum seeker population, particularly its increase. In March 2013, when these numbers began to increase, the Sri Lankan Government authorities requested the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sri Lanka to assist by taking certain measures, which include:
-the establishment of a safe house/welfare centre for those identified as refugees until they are accepted for resettlement in a third country;
-the regularization of the process of return of asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected. At present, once rejected, UNHCR bears no responsibility for the welfare or return of rejected asylum-seekers;
-expediting the process of resettlement to ensure its completion within a short period of time; and
-ensuring that asylum seekers are provided with adequate facilities and monetary assistance to live in Sri Lanka until their claims are processed or resettlement is found.
However, UNHCR has not addressed these requirements. Neither has UNHCR managed to expedite the twin processes of (i) status determination of asylum seekers; and (ii) resettlement of those identified as refugees in third countries. Refugee receiving countries have also been slow in processing resettlement applications. In fact, only at the very recent discussions, has UNHCR indicated the need for additional financial and human resources to expedite the processing of their claims. Having examined the UNHCR’s proposed Action Plan for this purpose, it is evident that the timeline on the final resolution remains unchanged from the current practice. It may be noted that in some cases, resettlement applications have been pending for over 5 years.
State responsibility on its international obligations are nuanced and balanced in the context of domestic compulsions. A State cannot be expected to carry a burden of this nature for an indefinite period of time. Therefore, these asylum seekers are being encouraged to return, in the vital security interests of Sri Lanka and the region.
Ministry of External Affairs
2nd August 2014