Why you should care
Because “safety” is sometimes a fluid concept.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Colombo, Sri Lanka
It’s a humid summer morning, and dark clouds are slowly settling over Negombo at the mouth of the Negombo Lagoon in Sri Lanka. You can call me David.
Negombo was like a paradise for us. Especially since in Pakistan I am a “criminal.” Which means if I go back there the mob will kill me or I’ll be put in jail. Forever. A long time for a man in his mid-30s. So I fled from Pakistan to Sri Lanka in 2017, hoping it would be safe for me and my wife, Shaista, a Muslim.
Since Pakistani independence in 1947, Islamism has generated growing violent attacks on minorities like Christians. Our homes and places of worship have become targeted by Muslims in Pakistan because of the controversial blasphemy law. There is an allegation of blasphemy against me in Pakistan, and secret agencies there are looking for me.
Mob lynching happens there because of blasphemy. And every single member of the mob wants to kill the “accused” to earn some savab, or spiritual merits. But when people have personal disputes with Christians, they also use the blasphemy law to overpower them, and many have lost their lives because of it.
Someone was kicking our door. When I opened it, a guy … slapped me, grabbed me by my collar and pushed me to the floor.
The last week of April, though, saw a string of bomb attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. During the burials of those killed in blasts, some angry community members started attacking us asylum-seekers and refugees, suspecting that all of us are Muslims. Some have even threatened our landlords and forced them to evict us.
I was sleeping when I heard loud shouting outside our house, and then all of a sudden someone was kicking our door. When I opened it, a guy, 6 feet tall and well-built, slapped me; he grabbed me by my collar and pushed me to the floor.
“Pick up your things and get out,” he said. “Whoever you are, we don’t want a Pakistani here.”
So we’re hiding in a safe house in the city, afraid a mob could attack us anytime because people believe that all who come from Pakistan must be extremists. The UNHCR [the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has been assisting people like us for years — even if my wife and I haven’t been getting any financial support from UNHCR because, after almost two years in Sri Lanka, we’re still asylum-seekers.
But the environment changed when the Islamic State took responsibility for the coordinated attacks in Sri Lanka. This and the fact that a local investigation showed that a group of Sri Lankan extremist Muslims were behind the April 21 bombings have made people in Negombo and other parts of the country angry, which led to reprisal attacks.
My wife and I had forgotten what had happened to us in Pakistan, and Shaista was enjoying the freedom that let her go wherever she wanted in Sri Lanka and feel safe, but now we feel we’re back in Pakistan again. And with nine suicide bombers carrying out a series of blasts that tore through luxury hotels and three churches in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, killing more than 250 people, we and some 150 other refugees had to seek refuge in the garage of the Negombo police station after the attacks.
The garage is open on three sides and jammed with infants who are sick, old men and women stretched out on plastic sheets, adults dozing, mosquitoes and flies everywhere. Some people have rashes all over their bodies. There are limited water and toilet facilities, no places to bathe; we don’t have clean clothes to change into. The rains are also making life miserable. Some Sri Lankan volunteers are helping us, but it’s not enough. And the government is visibly invisible.
Sri Lanka has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. In 2005, the UNHCR reached an agreement with the Sri Lankan government to register asylum-seekers and refugees. It provides monthly stipends of $56 per person and $124 for families with two or more children who are recognized as refugees. But UNHCR’s process to determine who is a refugee is very slow, long and tiring.
We cannot go to another country. We have to live here until UNHCR relocates us. And we want to be relocated, since refugees and asylum-seekers have no rights to basic amenities like food, health care and education. We can’t work in Sri Lanka, and even permanent shelter is not provided by the government.
The government, though, is obliged to protect us all here. But we have seen foreign nationals who, yes, were killed and injured in the bomb attacks, and got put up in hotels, so there’s been an outpouring of sympathy for them, but why isn’t there the same sympathy and support for the refugees and asylum-seekers?
Mostly it’s because it seems like after the bomb blasts a new fault line was found in the Sri Lankan communities. On the one side, families of those who died in the attacks are still in shock and grief. On the other, the local Muslim community is living in fear of retaliation. And stuck between them are us asylum-seekers and refugees, who are spending most of our time fearful of our future.
My wife said this to me just the other day: “For me, one thing I always think is this: With one place for the Muslims and another place for the Christians, and so on, where is the place for humans?”