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Sri Lanka: UNHCR Refugees

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 9 May 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Following the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka there have been reports of isolated incidents of violence and reports of intimidation and discrimination against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers. In Negombo, one of the suburbs 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. These 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 is in contact with the Government and UN agencies, working to find a more sustainable solution, and we are monitoring the situation carefully.

The United Nations is providing basic support—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 is a concern. The police have so far been welcoming, but we do understand that the facilities are insufficient. Staff at our high commission are also assisting in advocating and co-ordinating with the Sri Lankan Government to identify safe and secure relocation options to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. We also understand that processes are under way for some of the refugees to be resettled in third countries. Some 412 refugees are currently in the resettlement process of the UNHCR.

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 the response to the Easter Sunday attacks and to underline the importance of Sri Lankans working together to avoid intercommunal tensions. The Minister for Security and Economic Crime visited Sri Lanka on 2 and 3 May and met the President, Prime Minister, military and religious leaders and senior government officials, highlighting the importance of those points. Lord Ahmad and I have met with the Sri Lankan high commissioner over the past fortnight to raise concerns about refugees and minority rights in Sri Lanka”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question in the other place. I know that he understands the importance of this issue personally, particularly the Ahmadi Muslims, who have fled persecution in their own countries and Pakistan and who would face horrendous persecution again if they were to go back there. Will the Minister give a bit more detail about how we are able to support the Sri Lankan Government on immediate shelter for the refugees? Will this country be playing its part in any resettlement programme? Finally, on the discussion the Security Minister had, will we be supporting the Sri Lankan Government in trying to sustain a proper reconciliation process in the aftermath of that terrible tragedy?

My Lords, the short answer to the noble Lord’s final point is, absolutely. My right honourable friend the Security Minister made that offer to the Sri Lankan Government. I visited the high commission myself to sign the condolence book and had an extensive meeting with the high commissioner. I will be seeking to visit the country for the purpose referred to by the noble Lord. It looks towards the United Kingdom and I am proud—as I am sure all noble Lords are—to be part of a country which, notwithstanding its challenges, has shown that it has the respect of all faiths and none, and in which faith communities are an integral part of finding solutions to those challenges.

The noble Lord is right to point out the situation of the Muslim communities that were expelled under severe security concerns. He is quite right that the majority of those are Ahmadi Muslims; I declare an interest in this respect. I am sure that the irony is not lost on many people: those who fled Pakistan because they were targeted for not being Muslim are now being targeted for being Muslim in another country. I assure the noble Lord that we have made all necessary offers of support to the Sri Lankan Government. There has been no specific request as yet.

On the issue of relocation, the UN and civil society organisations are working with the Government to identify immediate relocation options and as I said, there are 412 refugees currently in the UNHCR resettlement process. He asked specifically about the number for the UK. The UN says that seven are currently being processed for relocation to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this Answer. The world looked in horror when we heard about the massacre of more than 250 people, worshippers and tourists, in Sri Lanka on that fateful Easter day. We have all condemned such attacks, and it is right that Sri Lanka takes every legal measure to identify and prosecute the perpetrators and take steps to prevent further attacks. I single out the timely meeting of the all-faiths group that was held in the Lord Speaker’s premises upstairs, at which a number of people paid tribute to what happened in Sri Lanka that day.

Two questions arise. First, I was delighted that the Minister mentioned the measures being taken to protect the Afghanis, Pakistanis and Ahmadiyya community in Sri Lanka, but who is actually monitoring that? Has the United Nations any particular role in ensuring the safety and security of this community? My second question concerns the Ahmadiyya community in this country and the very large Sri Lankan diaspora in the United Kingdom, as we have noted in the past. What is being done to assure the peace-loving Ahmadiyya community in this country about the protection of their friends and relations in Sri Lanka?

My Lords, first, I join with the noble Lord and I am sure I speak for all noble Lords when I say that we were all appalled by the events that took place in Colombo, with worshippers and people who were enjoying a holiday being attacked. It shows again the importance of unity in standing up to those extremists and terrorists who seek to divide us. We have experienced it here in the United Kingdom, and it is tragic that this is a worldwide scourge which we need to unify against.

On the noble Lord’s specific questions, we continue to work very closely with the diaspora communities here in the UK as well as the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The noble Lord will know that I am a member of that community; I have been working very closely with it and identifying its concerns. The situation for the refugees is very dire at the moment—indeed, they are taking refuge in a police station, a centre and an Ahmadiyya Muslim mosque in Colombo. I have raised these questions directly with the high commissioner and she has assured me of her co-operation.

I will share a poignant moment, if I may. The noble Lord talked about multifaith organisations. On Sunday, I attended such an occasion in a church near me in Putney: the high commissioner and the deputy lieutenant were present, and it was very poignant to hear readings from Christian communities and representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, who reflected on the need to stand up against those who seek to divide us, and prayers for those who have passed in these attacks.

My Lords, we are dealing here with not one but two members of the Commonwealth family. Can we be assured that, in our position as chair of the Commonwealth, working with the Commonwealth organisation generally, we are doing the maximum possible available to us in bringing to bear the co-ordinated efforts of the Commonwealth in meeting this difficult situation and the tragedy that lies behind it?

My noble friend speaks with great experience and insights, not just on the Commonwealth but on the two countries to which he refers, which are both friends of the United Kingdom. On the important issue of freedom of religion or belief, I visited Pakistan not so long ago, and I am sure that many of us have welcomed the recent steps that the Pakistani Government have taken in this respect, in what are pretty tense domestic environments. Indeed, yesterday we had the reported departure of Asia Bibi from Pakistan, which we all welcomed. We are working with the Pakistani Government on the importance of religious freedom and, as I said, we are also going to extend our work in building communal harmony and support for religious communities in Sri Lanka.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the role he played in helping to secure the release of Asia Bibi and her ability to travel to be reunited yesterday with her family in Canada. The persecution of that Christian woman and the Ahmadi community in Pakistan should motivate us all in promoting freedom of religion and belief, and particularly Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Can I take the Minister to Written Questions which I tabled yesterday, which I gave him copies of? One referred to the police stations where Ahmadis and Christians have been taking refuge in Sri Lanka, where, as the noble Lord has said, they are even denied basic food, humanitarian aid and assistance. Can he tell us precisely what discussions we have had with the UNHCR in making progress to help those groups? My second point was about the use of textbooks in Sri Lanka which have been criticised by UNESCO for stirring up religious hatred and the dominance of some groups against the position of minorities. Are we taking action to ensure that those kinds of textbooks are no longer available in Sri Lankan schools?

My Lords, again, the noble Lord speaks with great insight on these issues; equally, to return to the issue of Asia Bibi, I pay tribute to his efforts in that respect—I think we are all grateful for what has happened. But he is right that the real result will be not to have 1,000 Asia Bibi cases. We must work with countries such as Pakistan to ensure, first and foremost, that the long-term objective must be the overturning of these draconian blasphemy laws, which are used not just against minority communities in Pakistan but against Muslim communities themselves. I therefore assure the noble Lord that we are working closely with the Pakistani Government to ensure that we can build not just religious tolerance but understanding at a core level.

The noble Lord mentioned the UNHCR; we are engaged fully with the Sri Lankan authorities and UN agencies on the ground to see what level of support we can offer. There has been no specific request apart from the figures I quoted to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on specific refugees who may come to the United Kingdom. On the wider issue of textbooks, the noble Lord and I have discussed this matter, and I agree with him. We have a massive aid programme to various parts of the world, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and it is important that, as regards any support we provide, the values we seek to extend are reflected in the education and training, particularly which young children receive in those countries. I assure the noble Lord that we are working closely on that very objective with DfID colleagues.

My noble friend is entirely right to draw our attention to the plight of these Muslim refugees. However, can I return to the appalling atrocity that took place on Easter day? Is he as satisfied as he can be that the small Christian community in Sri Lanka has adequate protection? To take up the point on the Commonwealth made by my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford, would there be some value in convening a meeting here in London of Commonwealth high commissioners to discuss the persecution of Christians, Muslims and others of religious faith in the Commonwealth and to try to agree a much firmer code among them?

My noble friend makes a practical suggestion, and I assure him that I will take this forward. Many Foreign Ministers from across the Commonwealth will be attending the media freedom conference in July this year, and I will certainly look to take up my noble friend’s suggestion in the margins of that. I am conscious of time, but I put on record that I assure my noble friend that we are working closely with the Sri Lankan Administration to ensure the safety of the Christian communities, who have suffered the worst kind of atrocity. Terrorism is bad enough, but to attack people who are at their most vulnerable, engaged in an act of worship on the holiest day of the Christian calendar—there are no words to describe it. It is unacceptable, and the motivation for such an act is inexplicable. However, as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, I am clear that freedom of religion and belief, which we enjoy here, should be a universal right; as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, it is a human right. I am sure that I speak with the support of everyone across this House and beyond when I say that the United Kingdom Government will work tirelessly to ensure that that objective is upheld.