Urgent Question: Refugees in Sri Lanka

Mark responded on behalf of the Government to an Urgent Question tabled by Siobhain McDonagh MP regarding refugees in Sri Lanka following the terrible Easter Sunday bombings in that country. Mark's statement and initial responses can be found below and the entirety of the debate can be found on Hansard.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Asia and the Pacific what representation his Department has made to the Government of Sri Lanka regarding the safety of 1,193 UNHCR refugees in Negombo, who went to Sri Lanka fleeing religious persecution in their countries, but who now fear for their safety following the terrible Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

Following the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, there have been reports of isolated incidents of violence and of intimidation and discrimination against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers. In Negombo, a suburb to the north of Colombo where the terrorist attacks took place, 985 refugees and asylum seekers were forcibly displaced from their ordinary places of residence, according to UN figures. Those refugees and asylum seekers, who are mostly of Pakistani origin, are being temporarily housed and protected to meet their immediate security and humanitarian needs.

Our high commission in Colombo, led by our outstanding high commissioner, James Dauris, is in contact with the Government and UN agencies to work towards a more sustainable solution, and the UK is monitoring that situation carefully, along with other partners. The UN is providing basic support for food, drinking water, and immediate medical assistance, and co-ordinating with civil society to provide additional relief items. The humanitarian situation at the police station in Negombo is a concern. The police have so far been very welcoming, but we understand that facilities there are insufficient.

Staff at our high commission are assisting in advocating and co-ordinating with the Sri Lankan Government more generally to identify safe and secure relocation options to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. We understand that processes are under way for some of the refugees to be resettled in third countries, and 412 refugees are currently in the midst of the UNHCR resettlement process.

Ministers and representatives of the UK Government have met Sri Lankan counterparts over the past three weeks to reinforce the importance of inclusivity and respect for human rights in response to the Easter Sunday attacks, and to underline the importance of Sri Lankans working together to avoid intercommunal tensions. As was brought up earlier, I think we can all be pleased, without being complacent, that over the past three weeks there has been a sense of unity within Sri Lanka as a whole.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime visited Sri Lanka on 2 and 3 May, and met the President, the Prime Minister, military and religious leaders and senior Government officials to highlight the importance of those points and to talk more generally about security resilience. Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Lord Ahmad and I have met the Sri Lankan high commissioner over the past fortnight to raise general concerns about refugees and minority rights in Sri Lanka.​

I think all of us want to put on the record our grave concern about what happened. These were terrible events and our commiserations go to all those who remain affected and will be affected for some years to come.

Siobhain McDonagh

I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure we all send our heartfelt sympathy to the people of Sri Lanka and to all those mourning the loss of friends and family following the terrible Easter bombings.

Now that the spotlight of the media has turned, another tragedy is unfolding. There are 1,193 UNHCR refugees and asylum seekers, including 174 children, who have fled to three makeshift refugees camps in Negombo: the Pasyala Ahmadiyya mosque, the Negombo Ahmadiyya mosque and Negombo police station. Hostility towards Muslims following the attacks has led to growing violence, leading the refugees and asylum seekers to seek urgent safety. The conditions in the camps are worryingly inhumane. There is a severe lack of food and water, minimal toilet facilities, no medical facilities or basic sanitary facilities, no walls or beds, and not enough space to lie down. Over the bank holiday weekend, a child was born on the floor of one of the mosques. No doctor was present. Just this morning, latest updates indicated that more than one person had been taken to hospital due to illness.

The refugees and asylum seekers are largely from religious minorities who have suffered threats, attacks and persecution in their home countries. Many are Ahmadi Muslims who fled Pakistan, where their religious views may be punishable with death. Ahmadis identify as Muslims, but do not believe that Muhammad was the final prophet sent to guide mankind. This leads many of the refugees to be deemed to be “non-Muslim” in their home countries and to face persecution because of their beliefs. Now, in Sri Lanka, they face an imminent threat to their safety because they are considered to be Muslims.

The welfare of those in the makeshift camps is an immediate and serious concern, as is the possibility that these people will be forced to return to the places they fled from. Will the Minister use all his power to expedite the resettlement of the UNHCR refugees to safe third countries?

Mark Field

I thank the hon. Lady. She is very persistent: this is the third day running that she has applied for an urgent question on this matter. Robert the Bruce would be proud: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.

The hon. Lady makes a very serious point, not least about the Ahmadi Muslims and the terrible paradox of their situation. They are regarded as outcasts in much of the Muslim world, but find themselves very much at the forefront of tensions. It is important that we do not overstate those tensions. As I said in my statement, the high commission on the ground and our UNHCR partners will do all we can, but it is remarkable that, given the history of intercommunal conflict in Sri Lanka, over the past three weeks there has been relatively little that has led to direct concern. However, she is also quite right to say that housing over 1,698 asylum seekers and refugees, according to UN figures, in three unsatisfactory makeshift camps—the Negombo police station and the two mosques—is clearly not sustainable.​

Civil society contacts with whom we are working have reported other incidents of displacement and harassment of refugees in other parts of Colombo. It is important to recognise that we work together with many other high commissions and embassies in the area, including those of the US, Canada and a number of European countries who have a strong Sri Lankan diaspora whom they also wish to represent.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

Can the Minister be more specific about the support the Government are giving to the Christian community in Sri Lanka following the Easter Sunday attacks?

Mark Field

I am always touched by the amount of work my hon. Friend does in this regard, not just in Sri Lanka, but across the world. We are of course concerned at reports of minorities being intimidated, and as she rightly says, the focus of the attacks on Easter Sunday was the Christian community in several locations across Sri Lanka. As she will know, we welcome the interim report by the Bishop of Truro on the persecution of Christians worldwide and we look forward to the final report, which is to be published in the summer.

Freedom of religion and belief is clearly a priority for the Foreign Office, and we and our high commission are working to ensure that the threads of the report that are particularly relevant to Sri Lanka will have an impact there. The Christian community in Sri Lanka is of long standing. Part is Roman Catholic and other bits are Anglican, from our colonial times, but we hope to work together with all Christian communities. This is part and parcel of a package that does not represent one religion above others, but ensures that in this melting pot within Sri Lanka, all religions and faiths can live side by side peaceably and in prosperity.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing it. She has been very persistent and is right to draw to the House’s attention the plight of these refugees. I also thank the Minister for his response. I know he is very busy at the moment covering a large number of countries, but he brings a dedication to these issues, for which we are all grateful.

It is a matter great sadness that, despite the surge of national unity led by the Sri Lankan Government in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, groups of mindless individuals have instead responded to the attacks with reprisals against the refugee communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. They have responded to an act of sectarian hatred with further acts of sectarian hatred, which ultimately is what the terrorists want. The Sri Lankan Government have as much of a duty to crack down on this violence and to protect those refugee communities as they have to track down the organisers of the Easter Sunday bombings.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I wholeheartedly endorse the demands of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the other non-governmental organisations about ​what the Sri Lankan Government must do now to protect the refugees and make sure they are given adequate shelter and care while the situation is resolved. Will the Minister say today that the Government will not just endorse those demands but press counterparts in Sri Lanka to act on them? Will he also tell the House what support the Government are providing to Sri Lanka and whether, if any help is requested by the Sri Lankans, the British Government will respond?

As my hon. Friend said, the bitter irony is that many of these refugees in Sri Lanka are there having already fled religious persecution, and they have done so only to find themselves under attack again. The Government of Sri Lanka must urgently protect them.

Mark Field

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words about my work. We have been on the opposite sides of this Chamber and other Chambers in this place several times in the past 48 hours, and I thank her for her constructive comments and for the work she does. She is absolutely right that we need to nip in the bud any return to sectarian hatred—something that is well known to anyone who has Sri Lanka close to their heart. The report makes very clear what is expected of the Sri Lankan Government, and we very much hope to work closely with them.

I have been to Sri Lanka as a Minister on three occasions in the past two years. It is a country that we take seriously, and I was very keen for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime to go out there in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, not least because we have some expertise to share in the important areas of institutionalised communication and preparedness. It is not for us to dictate that agenda, and obviously there is already important co-operation on the security and intelligence side, but we need to work closely on structures for the future to ensure that any sectarian hatred is nipped in the bud. When my right hon. Friend was in Sri Lanka, he met key national security figures, including the Defence Secretary, the State Minister of Defence and the army commander, as well as the Prime Minister. He also met the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo.

We see our role as not to dictate but, hopefully, to provide useful advice. More generally, I hope that our experience as a result of what has happened in one part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—can bear well on moving towards the reconciliation that all Sri Lankans deserve.