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ISLAMABAD: The Foreign Office has distanced itself from the reported arrests of registered Pakistani refugees and asylum seekers in Sri Lanka, but aid workers from the island nation have confirmed that Pakistani refugees are being rounded up by the authorities.

Sri Lankan daily Ceylon Today reported last week that nearly 1,500 Pakistanis, many of whom are registered with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, have been picked up by the Sri Lankan Department of Immigration and Emigration and the Criminal Investigation Department. According to the newspaper, these people were to be deported because of their alleged involvement in ‘anti-state activities’ in India and Pakistan.

Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam was unsympathetic to the plight of the detained refugees in Sri Lanka, saying: “These people [asylum seekers] obtained asylum in Sri Lanka by badmouthing Pakistan. If they are in trouble, I have no idea.”

Sri Lankan newspaper says those arrested might have been involved in anti-state activities in India, Pakistan

“I do not know of any operation being conducted by Sri Lankan authorities against Pakistani refugees,” she added.

However, a UNHCR official in Sri Lanka, Dushanthi Fernando told Dawn: “Some 140 persons were reported to be detained at the Mirihana and Boossa detention centres. UNHCR is intervening and seeking clarification from the authorities on the reasons behind these arrests,” she said.

“As of June 9, UNHCR has been receiving reports that a number of Pakistani asylum-seekers and few recognised refugees have been arrested,” she said, adding that UNCHR had not been informed of any possible deportations.

“We continuously emphasise the importance and need for respect and observance of the principle of non-refoulement, which is a cornerstone of international refugee protection and a principle of customary international law,” Ms Fernando said.

She said UNHCR would continue to raise the issue with the relevant authorities.

The Sri Lankan newspaper, quoting unnamed sources, had reported that, “(an) operation was launched after intelligence sources revealed that some of the Pakistani asylum seekers in Sri Lanka are involved with insurgent groups in India and Pakistan”.

The report went on to say that asylum seekers in the city of Negombo are living under a cloud of fear following the arrests.

Duniya Khan, a UNHCR official in Pakistan, told Dawn that under the law, asylum seekers and refugees could not be harassed by any authority. “Law enforcement agencies of any country can only interrogate suspects on the basis of concrete evidence,” she said.

Ahmer Bilal Soofi, who is an expert on international law, told Dawn, “Under international law, asylum seekers have a certain degree of protection, which means they cannot be expatriated. However, refugees under the cover of asylum cannot indulge in criminal activities”.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is the authority that deals with the extradition of wanted individuals detained abroad. However, officials Dawn spoke to indicated that the action against refugees in Sri Lanka may not have been requested by Pakistani authorities at all.

Explaining the process whereby authorities reach out to law enforcement agencies from other countries, FIA Director Inam Ghani said: “For the extradition of a wanted person, FIA obtains perpetual warrants of the accused from a court of the law, and initiates a case for extradition with the country in question, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

He said that extradition requests usually pertain to specific individuals and the arrests of large number of people are almost never requested.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2014