THE DOUBLE STANDARDS
For minorities fleeing Pakistan, Sri Lanka is at best a temporary refuge
May 3rd 2014 | NEGOMBO | From the print edition
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, reports an increase in asylum-seekers arriving from Pakistan to 1,489 last year, up from just 102 in 2012. Most are Christians or members of Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect that is regarded as apostate by Sunni Muslims in Pakistan.
Sri Lanka’s attraction for the asylum-seekers is that they can enter the country on 30-day tourist visas, obtainable online, and stay on after registering with the UNHCR, while their cases are examined. Sri Lanka does not allow them to settle, but the process often takes up to two years. The UNHCR in Colombo, which has to record and cross-check each applicant’s story, is ill equipped to handle so many cases. To date, only 125 have been recognised as refugees.
Barred from working, and with their children out of school, many Pakistanis rely on handouts from churches and mosques. Every week the priest at another Catholic church in Negombo supplies needy Christians with biscuits, rice, noodles and other provisions. It is not enough for families such as that of Jameel Parvaiz, a 48-year-old Methodist pastor with eight children, who fled Pakistan 15 months ago. His wife, who has a bullet in her leg from 2012, when gunmen attacked their prayer centre, recently suffered a stroke.
Sri Lanka’s government gives the asylum-seekers no financial help. Pakistan maintains they are economic migrants fabricating stories. And the churches and mosques cannot keep supporting the increasing numbers. Already some are working illegally for a fraction of local wages.
In April Iftikhar Ahmad Ayaz, a London-based human-rights activist and Ahmadi scholar, met asylum-seekers in Negombo and urged them to discourage any more Ahmadis from coming to Sri Lanka until the UNHCR clears the backlog of asylum applications. In the meantime, as more Pakistanis arrive, residents are beginning to doubt their tales of persecution.