LOST amidst the hysteria and hyperbole of domestic events are often the real, ugly stories. The case of more than 1,500 Pakistani asylum seekers in Sri Lanka and nearly 300 refugees in Sri Lanka recognised by the UNHCR is one such story that is playing out at the moment and underlining the callousness of both the Pakistani and the Sri Lankan governments. A round-up of Pakistani asylum seekers in Sri Lanka that began earlier this month has so far netted around some 140 individuals who are now in detention camps in Sri Lanka and may be deported soon. While the official reasons for the detention of the Pakistani asylum seekers are predictably murky, the Sri Lankan media has claimed that it is being done at the request of the Indian government following a meeting between the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in which Mr Modi allegedly claimed that militants of Pakistani origin in Sri Lanka were planning terrorist acts inside India. Yet, the UNHCR’s bland details tell a different story: of the Pakistanis detained so far, most are Ahmadis while some Christians and Shia Hazaras are also included.
In the ethnic and religious identity of the detained Pakistanis in Sri Lanka perhaps lies the real story of Pakistanis facing persecution at home, escaping to another country only to be rounded up after being caught in the vortex of regional politics. That is a story with tragedy woven into it at every stage. Worse yet is the dismissive reaction of the Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam (“These people obtained asylum in Sri Lanka by badmouthing Pakistan.”) that betrays a callous disregard of Pakistanis who are being doubly failed by the state here: first in not being protected from violence inside Pakistan and then all but being disowned while facing trouble in a third country. Unhappily, the tale of the Pakistani asylum seekers in Sri Lanka is part of a wider tale of a state increasingly failing its citizens here. Where once asylum seekers from Pakistan were largely political in nature, the trend has now switched to those fleeing religious and ethnic persecution.
Surely, though, the Sri Lankan government must also bear some of the blame for targeting asylum seekers who are protected under international law. If the Sri Lankan media claims are accurate, deporting Pakistanis simply to satisfy a third country’s political leadership are all the more deplorable. While the rule of law and the judicial system in Pakistan itself leave much to be desired, it should surely be underlined that the Sri Lankan government does have obligations under international law that the government there appears to be ignoring altogether. By all means, those breaking the law can and must face the consequences — but are the Ahmadis, Christians and Shia Hazaras really undermining Sri Lankan security and neighbourly relations?
Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2014