By Michael Ireland, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
ILFORD, UNITED KINGDOM (ANS — January 25, 2017) – An advocacy group based in the United Kingdom is seeking to help Pakistani Christian refugees gain asylum in Sri Lanka.
Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christians Association (BPCA) — www.britishpakistanichristians.org — says he met very few Pakistani Christians in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, when he returned during late December responding to an invitation to meet with a Senior Protection Officer at the UNHCR based there.
Chowdhry was in Malaysia and quickly organized an urgent flight to Sri Lanka to ensure the meeting would go ahead on time and to assess the needs of Pakistani Christians asylum seekers in Negombo, a city adjacent to Colombo where news of a more numerous community reached the BPCA.
While there, Chowdhry attended several church services led by Pak-Christian community leaders and met with more than 100 asylum seekers in the three days he was present in Negombo. He visited the homes of numerous families and saw firsthand the abject poverty that the seekers of safety are subjected to.
Like Malaysia and Thailand, BPCA says Sri Lanka has not signed the 1956 UN Conventions for Asylum, nor the 1967 protocol. As such, asylum seekers and refugees are deemed illegal ‘overstayers’ and cannot work or receive any public money for welfare.
BPCA says that after initial reticence from local churches, some support is now being provided for the growing asylum seekers’ community. Initial reluctance to get involved is believed to be due to a failure to understand the plight of Pakistani Christians, no budget allocated by churches for the help of new phenomenon of asylum seekers, and a commonly held belief that the new arrivals were not truly Christians but were Muslims pretending to be Christians. It was commonly believed 100 percent of Pakistanis were Muslim — a stereotype that no longer pervades the Sri Lankan church body.
The neglect by local churches created a worsening morale amongst Pakistani Christians fleeing persecution in their homeland and many became suicidal, said Rev. Angleena from a Methodist Church in the nation’s capital of Colombo.
Rev. Angleena is a British Methodist Minister who has been in post for the last 16 months and has provided counseling and small amounts of aid for the few families that attend her church in the more expensive city of Colombo.
Angleena said: “On my arrival, I met with a couple of refugees after a morning service. They were hungry and so I took them out for food; they were the first people I ate a meal with in Sri Lanka. Since then we have helped a number of Pakistani asylum seekers, individuals and families. We have celebrated with those who have secured refugee status and await the next phase of their journey.
“We also continue to walk gently alongside others who have failed twice and are classed as now being illegal here in Sri Lanka. As a church, we have responded to various needs in the last year, supporting six month’s rent, medication, educational needs and an eye operation for an advanced glaucoma patient. I have had the honor of baptizing some babies and the heartbreak of a baby girl’s funeral.”
BPCA says that sadly, in November 2014, in response to the growing number of new asylum seeker arrivals in the young nation of Sri Lanka, the government responded by deporting hundreds of UNHCR registered asylum seekers and refugees, 384 in total. However, after articles written by the BPCA and other Pakistani Christian groups that triggered Catholic newspaper features on the plight of those forced home, the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka became involved alongside the UNHCR in convincing the government to take a softer approach. Catholic Priest Father Terrence of St Sebastian Church in Negombo housed dozens of asylum seekers in his church for over three months, feeding them and providing shelter.
BPCA says that no arrests of asylum seekers have been made by police, who have never entered the church grounds due to the power and authority of Catholic Church. In Negombo, 62.5 percent of the population is Catholic and a further 3.5 percent are Evangelical Christians.
BPCA said that during the meeting, a report was provided by UNHCR on the current status of asylum seekers.
Chowdhry said: “Apparently in the last few years the Government of Sri Lanka has allowed access to free medical treatment within their government hospitals for all asylum seekers and refugees and have agreed no arrests will take place for asylum seekers or refugees up to determination. However, any illegal activity will result in arrest, detainment and deportation. Fortunately for those that enter the country, registration is immediate and a document is provided. A UNHCR asylum certificate is provided to applicants within two to four weeks. The document has a duration of six months, thus preventing any difficulties with statutory bodies.”
BPCA stated the initial focus of the Sri Lanka UNHCR was to assist internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugee returns from Tamil Nadu as part of a repatriation program, a consequence of the Sri Lankan Civil War 1983 – 2009, which was their core mandate. However, this will cease at the end of the year although advocacy for these groups will continue.
“Sri Lanka still has no reference in law, no Government policies, and no statutory body protocols that deal with asylum issues and the UNHCR is helping them to develop processes. They provide training to immigration staff and try to involve the Sri Lankan Government with their processes,” said Chowdhry.
BPCA reports the current total figure of asylum seekers in Sri Lanka is believed to be around 600, of which 80 percent are believed to be Pakistani, the majority of whom are believed to be Ahmadi Muslims, and a small figure of 15 percent of the 80 percent is believed to be Pak-Christians.
Chowdhry said: “This brings the estimate of Pakistani Christians to be around a figure of 75, yet during my visit I met over 100 and local Pakistani Christians (and) believe a figure of over 200 are surviving in Sri Lanka. BPCA believes one way to account for this disparity is to consider the large number of Pakistani Christians who continue to live in Sri Lanka after failing their original application and appeal (approx 100). They are simply too fearful to return home. Once an appeal in rejected, no records are maintained by UNHCR of those choosing to remain. However ,UNHCR officer Igor Ivancic accepts there is a growing phenomenon of unregistered failed asylum seekers in Sri Lanka, which means that arrests and detainment may well increase.”
Chowdhry said the UNHCR in Sri Lanka is providing a maintenance allowance to any asylum seekers who gain refugee status determination. This maintenance grant makes them unique in South Asia, and although not particularly large, it provides a great boon to refugees who despite their new status are still not permitted to work legally in Sri Lanka.
He added: “The inability to work legally drives refugees and asylum seekers to take up exploitative employment to survive. This is a highly risky endeavor as Sri Lanka does not undertake crackdowns on known asylum seekers communities in the manner that we are seeing in Thailand, they are arresting and detaining any who break the law. Illegal employment is one of the reasons for detainment within immigration detention centers, but thus far, few inmates have been taken from their liberty for such an offence. The majority of detainees are an overhang from the more harsh approach taken by the Government from 2014 to 2015, when 385 were deported.”
During the meeting with the UNHCR, Igor Ivancic invited Rev. Angleena to join a ‘Refugee Advocates’ group which holds monthly meetings. The meetings enable UNHCR to dialogue with local groups helping asylum seekers, helps NGO’s and churches share ideas and successes, and enables them to coordinate funding and donations to prevent duplication, especially as there are known asylum seekers who will travel form church to church and NGO to NGO to obtain what help they can while they are aware that others are struggling with nothing.
Chowdhry also submitted the latest BPCA report on Pakistani Christians. It is hoped the report, which is 857 pages long and is widely accepted to be the most comprehensive report on persecution in Pakistan, will aid the UNHCR when making decisions on asylum cases for Christians from Pakistan.
“After the meeting at UNHCR HQ, we traveled to the Pakistan Embassy where we were fortunate enough to meet incoming Deputy High Commissioner Jahnbaz Kahn, who shared an hours-long dialogue with us,” said Chowdhry.
“Over tea and a biscuit we discussed the situation of Pakistani Christians and were even joined by Counsellor (Consular Affairs) Anjum Farooq, who explained how the Pakistani Embassy was there to help all Pakistanis, even asylum seekers. They admitted there were problems in Pakistan for Minorities, and stated they were doing their best to help. I asked about passport renewals for asylum seekers and they informed me that the process was open to all Pakistanis. I informed him that we would set up a test case as we were struggling to get the process working in Thailand where a definite bias was taking place against Christian asylum seekers and he seemed unnerved by this — which provides some hope.”
BPCA said that since the meeting with the Embassy of Pakistan, Chowdhry has maintained contact with Counsellor Anjum and is hoping through him to meet with the Government of Pakistan to understand better what measures they are taking to protect minorities. Chowdhry is also hoping to provide advice and guidance that might help develop a fairer society.
BPCA said that for this to happen, however, Counsellor Anjum will have to figure out a way to remove the ban from entering Pakistan that was imposed on Wilson Chowdhry six years ago, after being labelled anti-Pakistani by the Government due to his advocacy work on behalf of Pakistani Christians.
During meetings with Pakistani Christians in Negombo, organized by Michael Peters, Kashif Zafar and Sri Lankan Pastor Luke David (Methodist Church Negombo), Chowdhry came across a number of stories of failed asylum seekers who felt that they had a strong case for a review of their application for asylum. BPCA is particularly concerned about what seems to be procedural issues involved with assessment of one application and BPCA have agreed to write a report supporting the application.
BPCA would also like to support the work of Rev. Angleena who is helping the few Pakistani Christian families that are living in Colombo. She said: “Our church gives dry rations weekly to the families we support and we hold a monthly Urdu service. The church has been unable to continue its support through the Board of Social Responsibility and Christian service fund due to other commitments. Therefore the ministers of the church have started a new ministry called ‘En Route’ to continue to raise awareness and fundraise for the needs of Pakistani Christians.”
Angleena added: “This time last year we were challenged by the Sunday school whose theme for Christmas was ‘Jesus the Refugee.’ The various Sunday School departments collected toys to distribute to our Pakistani brothers and sister while the adults collected dry rations.
She concluded: “We thank God that we are able to help in some small way, not only financially, but also pastorally. As 2017 approaches, ‘En Route’ will continue to seek to raise funds for the ministry and is grateful for any assistance to be able to do so.”
Photo captions: 1) St. Sebastian Church. 2) Counsellor Anjum Farooq, Deputy High Commissioner Janbaz Khan, Iffat (asylum seeker), Rev Angleena, Nobi (asylum seeker), Wilson Chowdhry and Anton Sudharshan (Sri Lankan friend of BPCA). 3) Worship at one of the churches in Sri Lanka. 4) Michael Ireland.
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a volunteer internet journalist serving as Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as an Ordained Minister who has served with ASSIST Ministries and written for ANS since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia. Please consider helping Michael cover his expenses in bringing news of the Persecuted Church, by logging-on to: https://actintl.givingfuel.com/ireland-michael
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