The anguish of the Pakistani asylum seekers in Sri Lanka can only be imagined.
After several weeks of uncertainty, a court in that country has allowed the authorities to deport a number of individuals, comprising Ahmadis, Christians and Hazara Shias, who were seeking refugee status on the grounds of religious persecution in Pakistan.
They are among a group of around 150 Pakistanis rounded up in June by the Sri Lankan government and kept in detention camps while their fate was deliberated upon.
According to the UNHCR, which has complained it was not allowed access to the asylum seekers to assess their claims, 128 of them have already been deported since then, after the Sri Lankan government dismissively categorised the group as ‘economic migrants’.
The process was halted when human rights groups criticised the haste with which the authorities had seemingly washed their hands of the issue.
The case was turned over to the court which has by its decision validated Sri Lanka’s official stance that these individuals were a threat to the country’s security and public health.
Given the asylum-seekers’ religious affiliations, the veracity of their claims can scarcely be overstated. Sri Lanka would have done well to take a humane view of their quest for refuge; its indifference to their plight goes against the spirit of legal and moral obligations towards vulnerable groups.
In any case, now that avenues of escape for them appear to be closed, it is incumbent upon Pakistan to ensure their misery is not further compounded when they return by them being dragged into legal tangles based upon the deportation reports issued by Sri Lanka.
Already, the Pakistan Foreign Office has done them a disservice by saying they have ‘badmouthed’ Pakistan in Sri Lanka, a statement that dispenses with logic (for why would they seek asylum had they not been driven away by intolerable injustice here?) and compassion, for it has tarred them as ‘unpatriotic’ — a dangerous label in a milieu where minorities are anyway seen as second-class citizens.
Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2014