COLOMBO (AsiaNews) - A group of refugees entrusted to the care of the UNHCR is asking to relaunch, but above all speed up, "the process of relocation to a third country", to avert further suffering. To reiterate the request, they took to the streets on May 23 in front of the headquarters of the United Nations Refugee Agency, in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, to sensitize local authorities and the international community about their long-standing fate suspended as in limbo. "Make a decision as quickly as possible - recited the slogan printed on a sign - and do not send us back, towards certain death".
In the front row, Pakistani refugees. In the front row, leading the protest was a group of Pakistani refugees, who had been relocated to the island for some time and (so far) in vain waiting for a definitive settlement. According to estimates by activist Ruki Fernando, there are currently around 800 refugees in Sri Lanka, mostly from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Rohingya from Myanmar, as well as groups originating from Yemen, Syria and Nigeria. Most live in Negombo, as well as Panadura, Dehiwela and Mount Lavinia.
"We are human beings, not numbers." The protesters wanted to remember that “refugees are human beings, not numbers. Guarantee us an accommodation” as stated in one of the many writings on the billboards. Another stated that “By sending us back, you are violating our right to live” and again “Do not divide refugees into different communities. We are all equal and deserve dignity and respect." Some have not spared direct attacks on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which "must stop leaving us waiting for an answer" that has never come in years. “For the UNHCR - says he ad AsiaNews a protester from Pakistan - we are not a priority, but how long can we wait? We have been waiting here in Sri Lanka for seven years now. We've had enough, we want justice." “We have small children and not even them - adds the woman - have a future. They have no schools here. I don't know my future either. We ask to speed up our relocation”.
Another testimony. A second woman, also Pakistani, says she has been in Sri Lanka for 10 years and still has no certain prospects for her future or a country to go to. “We don't work here. Our children are not in school and have no education,” she denounces, adding that the biggest fear is “an early closure of the UNHCR office” and “without their support, what will become of us?” she wonders desperately. Still another, also from Pakistan, tells of his father who died in this time while waiting in vain to go to another country, of his mother who suffers from diabetes and her 14-year-old son who is also subject to high blood pressure, who survives thanks to medicines taken morning and evening. “Please, send us - exclaims the man - to a third world country. We can't work here. And it is very difficult to buy groceries. Food, medicine and house rent are very high. We can't live here."
Some have been waiting for years. “One of the requests of these people - explains the activist Ruki Fernando - is that the decision be taken as soon as possible. Some have been waiting for years for a permanent settlement. That means they don't know whether they will get asylum or not." Fears, fears and uncertainty about the future are fueled, he concludes, by the news anticipated by the UNHCR officials themselves of a possible closure of the UN headquarters or, in any case, of a sharp reduction in support and aid.
* Melani Manel Perera - Asianews