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Refugees in Sri Lanka

Volume 659: debated on Thursday 9 May 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Asia and the Pacific what representation his Department has made to the Government of Sri Lanka regarding the safety of 1,193 UNHCR refugees in Negombo, who went to Sri Lanka fleeing religious persecution in their countries, but who now fear for their safety following the terrible Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.

Following the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, there have been reports of isolated incidents of violence and of intimidation and discrimination against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers. In Negombo, a suburb to the north of Colombo where the terrorist attacks took place, 985 refugees and asylum seekers were forcibly displaced from their ordinary places of residence, according to UN figures. Those refugees and asylum seekers, who are mostly of Pakistani origin, are being temporarily housed and protected to meet their immediate security and humanitarian needs.

Our high commission in Colombo, led by our outstanding high commissioner, James Dauris, is in contact with the Government and UN agencies to work towards a more sustainable solution, and the UK is monitoring that situation carefully, along with other partners. The UN is providing basic support for food, drinking water, and immediate medical assistance, and co-ordinating with civil society to provide additional relief items. The humanitarian situation at the police station in Negombo is a concern. The police have so far been very welcoming, but we understand that facilities there are insufficient.

Staff at our high commission are assisting in advocating and co-ordinating with the Sri Lankan Government more generally to identify safe and secure relocation options to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. We understand that processes are under way for some of the refugees to be resettled in third countries, and 412 refugees are currently in the midst of the UNHCR resettlement process.

Ministers and representatives of the UK Government have met Sri Lankan counterparts over the past three weeks to reinforce the importance of inclusivity and respect for human rights in response to the Easter Sunday attacks, and to underline the importance of Sri Lankans working together to avoid intercommunal tensions. As was brought up earlier, I think we can all be pleased, without being complacent, that over the past three weeks there has been a sense of unity within Sri Lanka as a whole.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime visited Sri Lanka on 2 and 3 May, and met the President, the Prime Minister, military and religious leaders and senior Government officials to highlight the importance of those points and to talk more generally about security resilience. Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Lord Ahmad and I have met the Sri Lankan high commissioner over the past fortnight to raise general concerns about refugees and minority rights in Sri Lanka.

I think all of us want to put on the record our grave concern about what happened. These were terrible events and our commiserations go to all those who remain affected and will be affected for some years to come.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure we all send our heartfelt sympathy to the people of Sri Lanka and to all those mourning the loss of friends and family following the terrible Easter bombings.

Now that the spotlight of the media has turned, another tragedy is unfolding. There are 1,193 UNHCR refugees and asylum seekers, including 174 children, who have fled to three makeshift refugees camps in Negombo: the Pasyala Ahmadiyya mosque, the Negombo Ahmadiyya mosque and Negombo police station. Hostility towards Muslims following the attacks has led to growing violence, leading the refugees and asylum seekers to seek urgent safety. The conditions in the camps are worryingly inhumane. There is a severe lack of food and water, minimal toilet facilities, no medical facilities or basic sanitary facilities, no walls or beds, and not enough space to lie down. Over the bank holiday weekend, a child was born on the floor of one of the mosques. No doctor was present. Just this morning, latest updates indicated that more than one person had been taken to hospital due to illness.

The refugees and asylum seekers are largely from religious minorities who have suffered threats, attacks and persecution in their home countries. Many are Ahmadi Muslims who fled Pakistan, where their religious views may be punishable with death. Ahmadis identify as Muslims, but do not believe that Muhammad was the final prophet sent to guide mankind. This leads many of the refugees to be deemed to be “non-Muslim” in their home countries and to face persecution because of their beliefs. Now, in Sri Lanka, they face an imminent threat to their safety because they are considered to be Muslims.

The welfare of those in the makeshift camps is an immediate and serious concern, as is the possibility that these people will be forced to return to the places they fled from. Will the Minister use all his power to expedite the resettlement of the UNHCR refugees to safe third countries?

I thank the hon. Lady. She is very persistent: this is the third day running that she has applied for an urgent question on this matter. Robert the Bruce would be proud: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.

The hon. Lady makes a very serious point, not least about the Ahmadi Muslims and the terrible paradox of their situation. They are regarded as outcasts in much of the Muslim world, but find themselves very much at the forefront of tensions. It is important that we do not overstate those tensions. As I said in my statement, the high commission on the ground and our UNHCR partners will do all we can, but it is remarkable that, given the history of intercommunal conflict in Sri Lanka, over the past three weeks there has been relatively little that has led to direct concern. However, she is also quite right to say that housing over 1,698 asylum seekers and refugees, according to UN figures, in three unsatisfactory makeshift camps—the Negombo police station and the two mosques—is clearly not sustainable.

Civil society contacts with whom we are working have reported other incidents of displacement and harassment of refugees in other parts of Colombo. It is important to recognise that we work together with many other high commissions and embassies in the area, including those of the US, Canada and a number of European countries who have a strong Sri Lankan diaspora whom they also wish to represent.

Can the Minister be more specific about the support the Government are giving to the Christian community in Sri Lanka following the Easter Sunday attacks?

I am always touched by the amount of work my hon. Friend does in this regard, not just in Sri Lanka, but across the world. We are of course concerned at reports of minorities being intimidated, and as she rightly says, the focus of the attacks on Easter Sunday was the Christian community in several locations across Sri Lanka. As she will know, we welcome the interim report by the Bishop of Truro on the persecution of Christians worldwide and we look forward to the final report, which is to be published in the summer.

Freedom of religion and belief is clearly a priority for the Foreign Office, and we and our high commission are working to ensure that the threads of the report that are particularly relevant to Sri Lanka will have an impact there. The Christian community in Sri Lanka is of long standing. Part is Roman Catholic and other bits are Anglican, from our colonial times, but we hope to work together with all Christian communities. This is part and parcel of a package that does not represent one religion above others, but ensures that in this melting pot within Sri Lanka, all religions and faiths can live side by side peaceably and in prosperity.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing it. She has been very persistent and is right to draw to the House’s attention the plight of these refugees. I also thank the Minister for his response. I know he is very busy at the moment covering a large number of countries, but he brings a dedication to these issues, for which we are all grateful.

It is a matter great sadness that, despite the surge of national unity led by the Sri Lankan Government in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, groups of mindless individuals have instead responded to the attacks with reprisals against the refugee communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. They have responded to an act of sectarian hatred with further acts of sectarian hatred, which ultimately is what the terrorists want. The Sri Lankan Government have as much of a duty to crack down on this violence and to protect those refugee communities as they have to track down the organisers of the Easter Sunday bombings.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I wholeheartedly endorse the demands of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the other non-governmental organisations about what the Sri Lankan Government must do now to protect the refugees and make sure they are given adequate shelter and care while the situation is resolved. Will the Minister say today that the Government will not just endorse those demands but press counterparts in Sri Lanka to act on them? Will he also tell the House what support the Government are providing to Sri Lanka and whether, if any help is requested by the Sri Lankans, the British Government will respond?

As my hon. Friend said, the bitter irony is that many of these refugees in Sri Lanka are there having already fled religious persecution, and they have done so only to find themselves under attack again. The Government of Sri Lanka must urgently protect them.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words about my work. We have been on the opposite sides of this Chamber and other Chambers in this place several times in the past 48 hours, and I thank her for her constructive comments and for the work she does. She is absolutely right that we need to nip in the bud any return to sectarian hatred—something that is well known to anyone who has Sri Lanka close to their heart. The report makes very clear what is expected of the Sri Lankan Government, and we very much hope to work closely with them.

I have been to Sri Lanka as a Minister on three occasions in the past two years. It is a country that we take seriously, and I was very keen for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime to go out there in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, not least because we have some expertise to share in the important areas of institutionalised communication and preparedness. It is not for us to dictate that agenda, and obviously there is already important co-operation on the security and intelligence side, but we need to work closely on structures for the future to ensure that any sectarian hatred is nipped in the bud. When my right hon. Friend was in Sri Lanka, he met key national security figures, including the Defence Secretary, the State Minister of Defence and the army commander, as well as the Prime Minister. He also met the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo.

We see our role as not to dictate but, hopefully, to provide useful advice. More generally, I hope that our experience as a result of what has happened in one part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—can bear well on moving towards the reconciliation that all Sri Lankans deserve.

The Sri Lankan economy has recently benefited from increased tourism, particularly through cruise ship visits. Can the Minister assure me that he keeps the travel advice for British citizens on Sri Lanka under constant review? How can he ensure that our visitors to Sri Lanka continue to contribute to its economy?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her constructive thoughts; she is absolutely right. To recap, on 25 April the FCO amended our travel advice: we now advise against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka, except for airport transit. Obviously we hope that our advice can be adjusted as soon as possible, when the security situation allows, but given the somewhat chaotic immediate aftermath of the attacks, we felt that it was prudent. However, we understand that cruises and the fledgling but successful tourism industry in Sri Lanka will be very badly affected until we feel it is wise to update our travel advice.

The Foreign Secretary has made a statement to the House about the steps that the Government will take in the aftermath of the attacks. We very much hope to be able at the earliest opportunity to ease the travel restrictions that we put in place three weeks ago, but obviously that will be led by the evidence and the facts on the ground.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker; I commend the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing it. I concur with her words and those of the shadow Minister and the Minister of State. We add to those messages of sympathy to the people of Sri Lanka and those who have been caught up in the horrendous terror attacks of Easter Sunday. It is clear that some have heeded the wise words about compassion and tolerance spoken by the Bishop of Colombo, Dhiloraj Canagasabey, in response to the attacks, but that others have not. I hope that those words will now be heeded.

This is a tragedy heaped on a tragedy. Many of those who were caught up in the horrific terror attacks were already refugees: Ahmadis and Christians from Pakistan, Shi’as from Afghanistan, and refugees from Iran who had fled from religious, ethnic and political persecution in their country. What further assistance can the Minister provide to the UNCHR in expediting asylum claims? What assistance can he offer to the Sri Lankan Government? If, for whatever reason, the Sri Lankan Government cannot offer asylum, what can the UK Government and their counterparts do to ensure that these poor people are offered safe refuge as soon as possible?

I know that the hon. Gentleman also applied for an urgent question on the matter; I suspect that he will table more next week on related matters.

Clearly we are working together. The pace at which we are working with UN agencies has increased in the aftermath of the attacks. As I mentioned, 412 individuals are already going through the process of resettlement to other parts of the world. We will continue to work closely with our partners in Sri Lanka; obviously there is a process that needs to be gone through, but we and they will try to expedite it to ensure that those refugees who are entitled to be moved on are moved on as quickly as possible.

I do not want to trivialise these matters, but we are obviously very pleased to see that the Sri Lankan cricket team has arrived in the UK for the world cup, which is imminent. That has some relevance at this point, because the first match of the one-day international series, which I believe will take place on Saturday week, will be against Scotland, of all places. I hope that, in true Scottish national style, the team will be given a very good welcome when they play in Broughty Ferry, or wherever it may be.

The terrorists declared war on civil society and against the peace of Easter Sunday. What support can the Government give the Sri Lankan authorities so that they can take speedy decisions and actions against reprisal attacks, which would only aid the terrorists in their objectives?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: sectarian hatred needs to be stamped out. That is clearly a matter for the Sri Lankan authorities, but we obviously stand ready to co-operate and assist in any way in which we may be asked to do so.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for asking the urgent question. The Minister said that 412 refugees were currently involved in the UNHCR resettlement process. May I press him on that? How many of those refugees does the UK intend to take, and what more can we do with the UNHCR to increase the number who are resettled and brought quickly to a safe haven?

I hope the hon. Lady will excuse me if I write to her with more specific details once I have them to hand.

Will my right hon. Friend commend the local Muslim communities who have already given many refugees shelter in mosques? What more can this country do to help with those camps, which appear to be pretty unpalatable at present?

As my hon. Friend says, this can only be a short-term, interim measure, and we need something much more sustainable in future. The Government are spending £8.3 million of Conflict, Stability and Security Fund money on interfaith dialogue, reconciliation, police reform and training and de-mining in Sri Lanka, and a large sum on a wide range of other work, but I hope that elements of that can be used to deal with this urgent problem as well.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) has said, these refugee communities belong to religious minorities. Will the Minister make it clear to his Sri Lankan counterpart that there can be no question of their returning to Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran, where they will inevitably face religious persecution?

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that when there is a well-founded case for refugee and asylum status, there should be no question of that.

It is easy to find compassion for people who were persecuted, left Pakistan, came to Sri Lanka and now face further persecution. Will the Minister confirm that he will stand up for the Ahmadis, who have been through so much, and is there anything practical that the international community can do to help the Sri Lankan authorities on the ground?

I hope that I have explained in some detail what we are doing on the ground, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we will do all that we can. The plight of the Ahmadis, which is a global plight, is close to our hearts. As my hon. Friend probably knows, Lord Ahmad himself is an Ahmadi Muslim.

Given that the underlying issue is discrimination, and given that many of these poor refugees come from Pakistan, what representations will the Minister make to Imran Khan to make it clear that the blasphemy laws have no place in a modern world? They have caused not only this problem, but the case of Asia Bibi and, previously, the deaths of Salmaan Taseer and my friend Shahbaz Bhatti. It is about time that those laws were removed. Will the Minister do something about it?

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that our own high commission, and our excellent high commissioner Tom Drew in Islamabad, have made our concerns very clear. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Asia Bibi case. I think that we were all greatly relieved at the outcome, but obviously the security of her family is still at the forefront of our minds. I do not want comment on further speculation, but the fact that this matter has been resolved is, I think, a tribute not just to the Pakistan authorities but, in particular, to the new Pakistani Government. However, I will endeavour to ensure that our high commission is made fully aware of the specific concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Will the Minister undertake to raise with Sri Lanka the need to seek UNHCR assistance in managing the settlements so that they are not de facto detention camps? Also, further efforts need to be made for the security of these refugees, and Sri Lanka needs to deploy adequate numbers of law enforcement officers to ensure the protection and security of these vulnerable people.

The right hon. Lady makes the valid point that there is a risk, particularly if resettlement takes longer than we would all wish, that the settlements become de facto detention camps, which would be an unsatisfactory state of affairs, to put it mildly. As I have said, my counterpart from the Home Office was in Sri Lanka only last week and I know these sorts of issues were actively discussed. We will continue to make the case to which the right hon. Lady has referred.

The Minister will be aware that the Ahmadi community in the UK is very active, including delivering condolence cards to Christian churches here following the attack in Sri Lanka and raising lots of money for charity in the UK and abroad. If that community chooses to fundraise for the refugees in Sri Lanka would the Government be able to match, or indeed better, the sum it raises?

I had better be a little careful because though I have these added responsibilities, I do not have Treasury responsibilities. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right that it would be useful if we were able to match that sum in the way that we have on other occasions; perhaps he could write to me with specific details of that and I will take it up with the Treasury and other Departments.

Vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka must be protected, and the Sri Lankan Government have given an undertaking to protect those who wish to worship their God. What has been done to assist those Ahmadis who have fled Pakistan in fear but are now afraid in Sri Lanka and seek somewhere else to relocate to to achieve that?

The hon. Gentleman always speaks for the dispossessed across the world and stands up for the freedom of religious belief. As I have said, we are working closely on the ground to do all we can with international partners, particularly the UN, to make life better for those impacted. I hope to report back either in FCO questions next week, or in due course, about progress in what is happening in Sri Lanka.