Rohingya refugees agitate as UNHCR office in Colombo plans closure

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Rohingya refugees peacefully protesting in front of the UNHCR office in Colombo. They are requesting permanent solutions to their refugees issues

“UNHCR is closing its office and thereby squashing the hopes of refugees in Sri Lanka,” a protester representing Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka told media personnel at a protest held on January 2 (Tuesday) near the UNHCR office in Colombo. The protester didn’t wish to be identified in the glare of the media for safety reasons.

It was the dawn of a new day and though the sun was shining on these Rohingya refugees the promise that the morning brightness brought was not enjoyed by these protesters due to the presence of fear and the bleak futures associated with their lives. The hope that the New Year brings others was not applicable to these people because their lives are faced with a decisive moment. About 20 Rohingya refugees protested in front of the UNHCR office in Colombo holding boards in their hands. One such board read, “We are the victims of an unclear future”.

Speaking to ‘the Daily Mirror’ a youngster- who is fifteen years old- said that his parents had died in Myanmar. He posed the questioned what his future would be without UNHCR. He asked for support from the public. “I was afraid to attend the protest, but I have the confidence to fight for my rights,” the boy added. He too wished to remain anonymous.

One of the refugees at the protest site thanked the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) by saying, “We thank the Sri Lankan Government from our hearts because they helped us from the beginning. Our destination was somewhere else, but the Sri Lankan Navy rescued us”.

He still harbours hope that the Sri Lankan people and their government would support them in the future as well. He said that he had fears about his future because the UNHCR office was folding up operations here. He reiterated that they (Rohingyas) are stateless people. Moreover this individual said that members of his community are actually not living, but surviving. Also he stressed that if the UNHCR is closing down operations it must resolve the Rohingya refugee issue before leaving Sri Lanka. He demanded a durable and viable solution to the refugee issue from the UNHCR. He made a request to other embassies- like the US Embassy- to intervene and solve their problem.

One of the refugees, who is currently in Panadura, said that he came to Sri Lanka in 2015. He had come to Sri Lanka with two friends. He mentioned that one friend had passed away in Sri Lanka due to a health issue. “The UNHCR looked after him, but I can’t say that it was enough” he said. According to him the refugees usually have one meal per day. After struggling for about one and half years in Sri Lanka he has managed to obtain his refugee certification. “Our life is similar to a house without any door and window,” he complained. He underscored of the need to escape from this ‘dark life’. He said that when it comes to the issue of schooling for these children the UNHCR gave only stationary and uniforms. He said that when compared to the situation he had faced in Bangladesh he felt safer in Sri Lanka and added that he has received more education and medical facilities in Sri Lanka when compared to what Bangladesh offered refugees. He also spoke about housing issues in Sri Lanka and added that house agreements with officials had come to end. “We were afraid to attend the peaceful protest, but before you die at least you have to do something to protect your basic human rights. The death is closing in on us,” he said.

Lawyer Suren Perera

Suren D. Perera, a Human Rights lawyer, told the Daily Mirror that these refugees didn’t intend to come to Sri Lanka and were expected to go from Bangladesh to Indonesia. “So they (Rohingyas) never came to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Navy went to the sea and brought them here”. 
He explained the background to the problem associated with these refugees. He said that there was a case against them at the Mallakam Magistrate Court in Jaffna. After that these refugees were sent to the Mirihana Detention Camp in December 2022.

“They have UNHCR certificates as refugees. They were here until now. Suddenly UNHCR decided to make their exit from Sri Lanka. They were getting some allowances from UNHCR. That is how they survived in Sri Lanka. After the UNHCR exits Sri Lanka all these facilities are going to stop. They want UNHCR to have a plan for them. They want Sri Lankan Government to take responsibility regarding them because they are the ones who brought them here. After UNHCR leaves Sri Lanka the Sri Lankan Government has to take the responsibility of these refugees, or else the UNHCR should have a plan for them,” added Perera. 
Also Perera explained the legal background connected to these refugees. He added that the Government of Sri Lanka has to facilitate the refugees’ stay here in the island until UNHCR resettles them in another country as a permanent measure.

Prominent human rights activist Ruki Fernando told Daily Mirror that this community representing the Rohingya refugees had to return to the same venue after their last protest in May 2023. He said that he and some of the other activists had discussions with UN resident coordinator in Sri Lanka in 2023 regarding this issue, but there was no solution to their problems.

“We made requests to make sure that a permanent resettlement process will continue and no one will be abandoned. This government doesn’t offer permanent resettlement. Nothing seems to have happened between May and December in terms of assuring refugees about permanent settlements, education and healthcare,” added Fernando.

Fernando said that Rohingya refugees are stateless. He said that the Government of Sri Lanka must take some responsibility regarding this issue because of the growing global refugee crisis. He sees some positivity in this issue because the Government of Sri Lanka allowed these refugees to settle in this country temporarily. 
“Relatively this is a very small number of people. Globally there are millions of refugees,” added Fernando. 
He maintained that some of the refugees had told with him that they like to settle down in Sri Lanka because they feel safe in this country. He also stressed that the Sri Lankan hospitality would be tested in how they treat people from vulnerable communities.

Attorney-at-law Lakshan Dias shared his opinions and some of his past experiences regarding the refugees. He recalled how Sri Lankans are living as refugees in other countries. Dias said that it was unclear to him as to how UNHCR will operate from 2024 onwards in Sri Lanka. 
“They have told us that there will be no assessments done on these refugees in Sri Lanka. From 2024 onwards these refugees are on their own,” added Dias.

He referred to what had happened to the UNHCR office in Hong Kong; an incident he had witnessed.
“In 2005, in Hong Kong, the UNHCR did the same. There they moved out from their office. We were in Hong Kong at that time and had no option but to search for other options. The Hong Kong Government was part of UN CAT and article 3 of UN CAT was applicable. If anybody tortured citizens of their country of their origin they could live in Hong Kong”.

Dias said that since these refugees don’t have any local laws supporting them they might have to depend on Sri Lanka and well wishers.
“Newcomers to Sri Lanka as refugees and asylum seekers will have no opportunity to seek asylum. They have to seek supports from the Sri Lankan Government. The Government of Sri Lanka does not have any laws supporting refugees who arrive here,” said Dias.

“So where are they supposed to go. There is no UNHCR, no government strategies, no government ministry or department to look after them and no laws to cover this issue. They only have one option and that is to go before courts to seeking their fundamental rights. They are human beings and they are covered under article 10,11,12.1 and 12.2 of the constitution,” he explained.

“And the UNHCR from a global level has a sort of a reach and they can look at it as a third party and bring a settlement according to status of refugees. But countries like Sri Lanka have no rights. So that is why UNHCR is important. But after 18 years the refugees are in a handicapped situation,” added Dias.
Also he questioned from the government how this government is going to look after them.

“My opinion is to look after them because we have sent millions of our people to most parts of the world; from 1979 onwards,” said Dias.
He added that the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry is not legally bond to speak regarding this matter. “But customary the international law is prevalent,” he said.

Dias warned that these refugees will start starving given the current situation in the country.
Some local lawyers and activists walked along with the Rohingya refugees to the UNHCR office in Colombo and handover a petition to a UN officer at the UNHCR. The UN officer didn’t engage himself in conversation with the refugees and their supporters. The only assurance he gave was that the authorities would contact them. The letter handed over to the UNHCR was signed by Rohingya refugees. They had mentioned in this letter not to abandon them. After that the protesters visited the Canadian and US Embassies in Sri Lanka and handed over letters.

One of the refugees handing over the petition to the UN officer Kiriella. The petition was signed by 72 Rohingya refugees.
Pics by Kithsiri De Mel

courtesy daily mirror

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Disclaimer: Rohingya refugees agitate as UNHCR office in Colombo plans closure - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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