Aug 02, Colombo: The Sri Lankan government says recent influx of asylum seekers has burdened the country and the United Nations refugee agency has been slow to address their requirements for resettlement.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a statement Saturday criticized Sri Lanka for failing to follow international obligations and deporting Pakistani and Afghan refugees before the agency can assess their asylum claims.
The UNHCR said in a statement today that Sri Lanka in violation of its international obligations has deported 18 Pakistani asylum seekers in the past two days and 10 more facing imminent expulsion.
Clarifying the situation regarding the asylum seekers, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement today that it has received a number of inquiries on the return of individual asylum seekers, mainly of Pakistan origin.
According to the Ministry, the asylum seeker/refugee population in Sri Lanka has witnessed a dramatic 700 percent increase during the period 2013-14 and as at 30 June 2014, there are 1,562 asylum seekers and 308 refugees.
The Ministry said the investigations have revealed that the sudden increase in the number of asylum seekers in Sri Lanka was a result of people falling victim to commercially driven human trafficking networks which abuse the liberal visa policy of Sri Lanka.
Sharp increase in the numbers resettled in third countries in 2012 has worsened the situation but the process of resettlement has slowed down considerably in 2013/14 raising the concern whether the immigrants have a legitimate claim to seek asylum.
The government noted that the influx of asylum seekers and their tendency not to have an established place of residence has resulted in serious law and order, security, as well as health related issues for the authorities.
For example, in April 2014, ten cases of malaria were detected among the asylum seekers a. 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 Ministry further said that the government, 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 have requested the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sri Lanka to assist by taking several measures to address the issue.
The government has asked the UNHCR to establish a safe house/welfare center for those identified as refugees until they are accepted for resettlement in a third country and to regularize 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, the Ministry said.
The Sri Lankan government has also asked the UNHCR to expedite the process of resettlement to ensure its completion within a short period of time and ensure 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, according to the government, the UNHCR has not addressed these requirements.
The Ministry complained that the UNHCR has not managed to expedite the twin processes of determining the status of asylum seekers and the resettling of those identified as refugees in third countries.
Furthermore, refugee receiving countries have also been slow in processing resettlement applications, the Sri Lankan Ministry says.
"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," the External Affairs Ministry said.
In some cases, resettlement applications have been pending for over 5 years, the Ministry noted.
The government points out that state responsibility on its international obligations are nuanced and balanced in the context of domestic compulsions and a State cannot be expected to carry a burden of this nature for an indefinite period of time.
Therefore, the Sri Lankan government says these asylum seekers are being encouraged to return, in the vital security interests of Sri Lanka and the region.