Lawyers and organizations working towards achieving refugee rights and welfare highlighted that all matters pertaining to any Rohingya ethnics arriving on local territorial shores, were being handled almost entirely by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The Rohingya, persecuted in Myanmar, have come to Sri Lanka on four occasions (in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2017). Approximately 400 refugees have come to Sri Lanka over the years, and while nearly 200 left back to Bangladesh, the majority of the rest have been resettled by the UNHCR in the United States of America and Europe with some from the last batch still remaining.
On the question of the country’s legal status with regard to refugees, although Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, and therefore not being under obligation, various other laws apply and therefore cannot merely deport those who arrive in Lankan territory. Refugees can seek legal redress.
Apart from the fact that the UNHCR practically handles all matters pertaining to the Rohingya at the moment, Attorney-at-Law Lakshan Dias said that Sri Lanka had nothing to worry about in terms of any mass influx of Rohingya to the country. The latter is due to the huge stretch of ocean between the Arakan and Rakhine provinces in Burma and Sri Lanka. The journey via sea is a treacherous one owing to the turbulent waters and cyclones. The Thailand Government was previously accused of sending the refugees back into the dangerous waters, where some drowned while at sea. This is a crime under international law.
Some however may come. If a Rohingya refugee comes to the country, necessary legal action must be taken. This involves the Navy or the Coast Guard handing them over to the Department of Immigration and Emigration, the latter will detain them at centres such as the facility developed in Mirihana to which the UNHCR has access to. The refugees will then be protected in wings setup for the purpose by the UNHCR until resettlement. All of this comes under the mandate of the UNHCR whereby the Rohingya gets blanket coverage and thus the Government of Sri Lanka has nothing really to do (financially and resources wise). The refugee status applications are processed quickly, with most completed within a period of six months up to one year.
“The foreign policy is up to the Government. We must look at this situation in a humanitarian manner. We must protect these fellow human beings. In 2008 and 2012, it was various non-governmental organizations, charities, Christians and churches (with the St. Michael’s church in Polwatte building toilets prior to such being provided at the Mirihana detention centre), and the Buddhist monk Baddegama Samitha who initially supported the Rohingya when they were brought to the camp in Boosa, not the Muslims who helped. The Rohingya are an unfortunate ethnic group,” he explained.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Government has meanwhile stated that the Government had not deviated from the accepted norms with regard to dealing with refugees and that they had worked within the approved procedure in this regard. Previously, on April 30th, the Navy rescued around 30 Rohingya refugees, who in turn left the island in August after a Court ordered handover to the UNHCR.