(New York) – At least 142 Pakistanis arrested in police sweeps in Sri Lanka in June 2014 are being detained and are at risk of deportation, Human Rights Watch said today. The Sri Lankan controller general of immigration should not deport members of Pakistani minority groups until the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has had full access to them and determined their need for international protection.
Most are members of the Ahmadiyya minority, though the detainees also include Christians and Shia Muslims. UNHCR has not had access to the detainees, who are being held in the Boosa detention center, although the UN refugee agency had already recognized at least six of the group as refugees. Media reports cited Immigration Controller Chulananda Perera as saying that the government was able to deport the detained Pakistanis because it had not given them permission to register asylum claims.
“Sri Lankan authorities are threatening Pakistani minority group members with deportation at the very time when persecution of these groups is escalating in Pakistan,” said Bill Frelick, refugees director. “Preventing asylum seekers from lodging claims in no way absolves Sri Lanka from its duty not to return them to possible persecution.”
Under the principle of nonrefoulement in international law, governments are prohibited from forcibly returning refugees to places where they would be at serious risk of persecution or other serious harm. The principle applies equally to people prevented from lodging asylum claims who would still face serious harm upon return.
The sweeps of Pakistani minority neighborhoods in Negombo, a city on the western coast of Sri Lanka, began on June 9, with authorities citing security concerns for the sweep. Negombo has been a haven for minority refugees from Pakistan. In 2013, UNHCR registered nearly 1,500 refugee claims of Pakistanis in Sri Lanka.
Pakistan Attacks on Religious Minorities
The Pakistani government has failed to investigate instances of discrimination or violence against ethnic and religious minorities. Members of the Ahmaddiya, Christian, and other religious minority communities are at acute risk of violent persecution and discrimination in Pakistan. Both Human Rights Watch and the Asian Human Rights Commission have noted that the community faces increasing risks and social discrimination due to threats by militant groups.
Recent acts of discrimination against the Ahmaddiya community include, for example, targeted killings of prominent members, registration of false cases, and desecration of community sites. In some instances, provincial officials have supported militants rather than provide adequate protection to members of religious minority communities.
On June 30, 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report on the persecution of Shia Muslims in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch documented that Pakistan’s Shia Muslim community has been the target of an unprecedented escalation in sectarian violence as Sunni militants have killed thousands of Shia across the country since at least 2008.
Christian churches and residential areas have faced similar attacks, such as the September 2013 attack on a Peshawar church that killed 85 people. At least three Christians have been sentenced to death in 2014 for blasphemy.
The persecution of religious minorities is wholly legalized by the Pakistani government. Pakistan’s penal code explicitly discriminates against religious minorities and in particular targets Ahmadis by prohibiting them from “indirectly or directly posing as a Muslim.” Ahmadis are prohibited from declaring or propagating their faith publicly, building mosques, or even referring to them as such, or making the call for Muslim prayer.
Pakistan’s “blasphemy law,” as section 295-C of the penal code is known, makes the death penalty effectively mandatory for blasphemy. In 2009, at least 50 Ahmadis were charged under various provisions of the blasphemy law across Pakistan. Many of them remain imprisoned. Several Christians have been targeted and charged under the blasphemy law as well.
Despite the persecution of members of religious and ethnic minorities in Pakistan, the Pakistani government has shown nothing but contempt toward those who have fled the country and sought asylum abroad. The Pakistani newspaper, The Dawn, quoted foreign office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam as saying, “These people obtained asylum in Sri Lanka by badmouthing Pakistan.”
“Sri Lankan authorities should know that Pakistan fails to protect its minority communities from persecution,” Frelick said. “Sri Lanka must honor its international obligations, and allow UNHCR access to ensure that no detainee is deported to face the risk of persecution or torture.”