Sri Lanka: Halt forced returns of Pakistani religious minorities

The Sri Lankan government must immediately halt plans to forcibly return asylum-seekers to their countries of origin in violation of international law, Amnesty International said today.

Individuals from Pakistani religious minority groups, in particular Christians and Shi’as who sought sanctuary in Sri Lanka over recent years and were displaced by the Easter Sunday attacks, have been detained and could be deported by the authorities in a move that would breach the customary international law principle of non-refoulement by putting them at risk of serious human rights violations.

“Sri Lanka must halt plans to forcibly return these people and put their lives in harm’s way. They have been forced from their homes twice now, first in their own countries and now in the country where they sought safety and shelter. By sending them back to face the threats they first fled, the authorities would be violating international law,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International.

Refugees and asylum-seekers in Sri Lanka became a target of reprisal attacks in the wake of the Easter Sunday massacre that claimed the lives of more than 250 people when three churches and three hotels were bombed by an armed group claiming links to the so-called “Islamic State”. Wielding sticks and other weapons, mobs gathered outside the homes of refugees and asylum seekers, demanding they leave immediately. Grabbing the few possessions they could, they sought refuge in nearby police stations and community centres.

The people at risk of deportation have had their asylum claims rejected by the UN refugee agency. Under customary international law, however, the principle of non-refoulement applies to all people, regardless of their asylum status. No one can be sent to a risk of irreparable harm.

There are more than 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers who have been displaced by the violence in the aftermath of the 21 April 2019 attacks. They include more than 1,000 Pakistani Ahmadi Muslims, while the remaining 200 are mostly from religious minorities from Pakistan and Afghanistan, including Pakistani Christians, Pakistan Shi’as, and Afghan Shi’a Hazaras. The people at risk of deportation include Pakistani Christians and Pakistani Shi’as, religious minorities that have faced violence at the hands of armed groups and accusations of “blasphemy”, an offence that carries a maximum punishment of the death penalty.

Sri Lanka has for years welcomed people fleeing persecution in their own countries. It should build on this positive record, not reverse it. There has to be a fair process, and no one should be deported to face serious human rights violations, whatever their status of their asylum claims,” said Biraj Patnaik.