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Sri Lanka offers sanctuary of sorts for fleeing Christians

Life in Sri Lanka is by no means easy for Pakistani asylum seekers

Sri Lanka offers sanctuary of sorts for fleeing Christians

Hina Milwood, 28, a Pakistani Christian refugee in Sri Lanka attends Mass with other refugees in Negombo town on Sunday. (Photo: Jimmy Domingo)

Joe Torres, Negombo
Sri Lanka

January 22, 2014

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On the beach behind the Kudapaduwa parish church in the Sri Lankan town of Negombo, Hina Milwood stares at the horizon, oblivious to the singing of churchgoers inside.

"I am thinking of home, and the future that awaits us here," says the 28-year old Pakistani asylum seeker, one of some 1,000 Christians who fled persecution back home.

Home is her village in Pakistan where extremist Muslims shot her younger brother five times last year and threatened to kill the whole family.

"They entered our house, and without questions, they shot my brother," recalls Hina, who with her parents, two brothers and two sisters, fled to Sri Lanka.

The Milwood family's plight started when Muslim extremists "invited" Hina's brother to become a Muslim. The brother was then working in a hospital where wounded Taliban fighters were treated.

"When the Taliban learned that my brother was a Christian they tried to convince him to become a Muslim. When he refused, they came to our house and told us to become Muslims or die," Hina recalls.

"Then they shot my younger brother five times," she adds.

Hassan Bursha, a 30-year old father of two, says Christians in Pakistan, especially in far flung villages, "are under threat." He says Pakistani authorities look for reasons to charge Christians with violations of a harsh anti-blasphemy law.

Together with her nine-month pregnant wife and daughter, Hassan fled to Sri Lanka last December. His wife gave birth in a public hospital in Colombo. "Our problem now is how to survive," he says.

Pakistani asylum seekers choose to flee to Sri Lanka because of lax immigration laws. Visitors can even apply for a 30-day visa online to enter the country.

Problems start, however, when asylum seekers reach Colombo. Until the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) grants “refugee status” to asylum seekers, they are not allowed to seek employment, and their children cannot go to schools.

Application for refugee status takes at least two years. Until then, they live in limbo.

The UNHCR entered into an agreement with the Sri Lankan government to undertake refugee status determination, a detailed process of interviewing and assessing each individual’s story.

After they are determined to be refugees, they are either repatriated to their home country if the conditions are right, integrated into the country where they have sought asylum, or resettled in a third country.

In Sri Lanka, the government does not allow refugees to stay, and only a tiny number wish to return home, so the UNHCR looks for countries that can offer resettlement to Pakistani refugees.

"They are facing a very difficult situation here," says Oblates missionary priest Eric Lakman, who is helping the refugees in the town of Negombo. Lakman had worked in Pakistan for 15 years and knows many of the asylum seekers.

"They have no income, they might have a little money, but housing and food in Sri Lanka is expensive," says Lakman.

Church leaders say Sri Lanka is now hosting more than a thousand asylum seekers, mostly Christians and Ahmadiyyan and Shia Muslims who claim persecutions in Pakistan.

The increasing number of asylum seekers has been causing concern to Sri Lankan authorities.

Chulananda Perera, controller at the Sri Lankan Immigration and Emigration bureau, says authorities are looking into reports that asylum seekers were allegedly involved in illegal activities, like drug trafficking, human smuggling, and are engaging in business activities.

Perera says that even the UNHCR has no system to segregate asylum seekers from local communities.

"The UNHCR sends us the details requesting our consent only later," he says. It is then too late, he says, adding that "they are free to go about their business".

The UNHCR office in Colombo earlier denied knowledge of asylum seekers engaging in illegal activities.

"We are not aware of such information. All registered asylum seekers and refugees have signed a declaration with the UNHCR stating that they will abide by the local laws," a UNHCR spokesperson said in a statement.

In June last year, Sri Lanka's Department of Immigration and Emigration warned 88 recognized refugees and 243 asylum seekers registered with UNHCR to leave or face deportation. The UNHCR later intervened and asked authorities to withdraw the notice and prevent the deportation.

The majority of the recognized refugee population lives in urban areas in Negombo, while some families are staying in Colombo.

Lakman says however that the asylum seekers should not be a burden for Sri Lanka.

"During the 30 years of war, our people fled to Europe and other countries. Now, after the war, it is our responsibility to help our neighbors," the priest says.

He says Catholics in Negombo are "very much concerned" about the asylum seekers. They even held a Christmas gathering for them last December.

Lakman says it is only the "great faith" of the asylum seekers that keeps them going. "They go and beg in churches, they go to the religious, the sisters, they beg and they plead for their survival. There is no way to go back, there is no hope of going back."

Hina agrees. With tears in her eyes, she says: "It's very difficult for the whole family. We are in so much trouble."

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