Inside UNHCR and Sri Lanka
A must read for all those who are facing persecution in their country and are planning to seek Asylum.
I was writing a book on terrorism in Pakistan. According to my field work and findings Pakistan ISI was supporting terrorists at a very large scale. They were being used as civilian army to fulfill their political dream of bringing Khilafat to Pakistan.. Upon receiving serious threat to our life we fled to Sri Lanka on 1st January 2012.
Unable to publish my book, I started my website and started writing about very sensitive human rights issues mainly involving Pakistan Security forces. Pakistan did not like it.
After a few days we went and got registered with UNHCR Colombo.
UNHCR staff member a translator met us in Macdonald’s Clolpetia and told us that we should go back to Pakistan as UNHCR will not give us asylum.
We were very upset and I posted that on UNHCR Facebook.
I talked to a protection officer Tanga about it. She was alarmed she took a promise from me that I would not talk about it.
Our interview with UNHCR was delayed for a very long time.
Finally we were called for an interview after a year.
Interview was exactly the opposite of what I was expecting from UNHCR.
However the translator lady once the harbinger of a bad news was very professional and the one conducting the interview was just the opposite.
She was shouting, no eye contact no judgement skills above all not really interested. She asked me about my unpublished book on terrorism, I told her it’s in my Google Docs, she did not ask me to produce it though I could have done it right there, yet made it my failure point that I did not show her the book.
Her last question
“where were you living in Pakistan ” was very disappointing.
After this interview UNHCR failed us.
I knew ISI would not spare me and my family and would kill us if we are sent back to Pakistan.
Horrified I started contacting UNHCR and through many emails I tried to explain my highly precarious situation.
I got very negative signals from UNHCR felt alarmed and very insecure.
My church Brother arranged a lawyer for me for my appeal against the initial decision of UNHCR.
However after listening to my story and going through my blog the lawyer looked visibly upset, perhaps he found it hard to help a girl who has written extensively about Sri Lankan friendly Pakistan Security forces.
We started receiving wrong calls. I was followed on the road. I knew I was exposed. Now No need to hide my identity, I started blogging with my own name.
We went to women in need center and asked for shelter, they agreed but later changed their mind after speaking to UNHCR staff.
They were told by UNHCR Colombo in advance that we were failed with UNHCR though I had just filed an appeal against the initial decision of the UNHCR.
I called the senior protection officer MR. Gregory Balke he got very upset and kept telling me that it was very wrong to call him on his cell. He said ‘”You will be called to the office for an interview or for other reasons” it was an indication that we might not get a chance for an appeal interview and will be called to receive another failure decision.
I Started Looking for options to stay in Sri Lanka.
On Saturday 9th March 2013 a bunch of immigration officers around 20 of them came to our rented house in Colombo.
They were banging and kicking on the door and threatened to break the door open. They had no lady officer with them and had no right to enter in a house with no male family members in it.
We did not open the door, instead took our documents and money and taking a risk for our life jumped from the 2nd floor balcony in to the neighbor’s house. We went to another city Kandy.
We stayed there for few days and kept calling UNHCR.
UNHCR protection officer told me
“Do not do a drama come back to your home. you are registered with UNHCR, immigration cannot touch you”
As told we came back and were very much touched.We were arrested by the help of the well briefed taxi drivers present there and a traffic police man. I fell down crowd present there touched me all over. Someone pulled my heavy gold chain.
Immigration officers arrived very late and took us to Dahi wala police station.
They kept joking with each other about our earlier escape.
Police officials present there looked very sympathetic to us. They kept telling us that we have no problem with us. It is immigration matter and they can’t interfere.
We were taken to Mirihana detention center. An officer shouted at me
“you give our information to India.’’ I was shocked I don’t know a single person from India I am a stranger in Sri Lanka with zero knowledge of their places and language what was he talking about.
Mr Amit Prerara of immigration took our passports and UNHCR stay permit letter. What happened to our valuables and all we had at home still remains unanswered.
When he walked away with our passports in his hands, my heart sank.
I called UNHCR .They were hiding.
It was UNHCR staff who persuaded us to come back to our home. I lost all my trust in them.
UNHCR was neither answering my emails nor my calls.
We were told by an officer in the Detention center that deportation case is being filed against us To my horror I came to know that we were being involved in madeup cases.
We were told by the immigration officials and Detention camp staff,
“ISI Head contacted Sri Lankan intelligence Head about You
Siri Laankan intelligence Head is investigating about you
CID special team is involved in your case”
We were accused of being spies of India.
Head of intelligence and Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa
I was scared to death and had a minor heart attack. I stayed in the hospital for four days.
I called UNHCR Geneva from the hospital and spoke to the official responsible for Sri Lanka. He spoke to me very kindly and promised me that he will talk to UNHCR Colombo.
The next day when I called him he had already spoken to UNHCR Colombo, he banged the phone on me.
I did not give up and tried to explain through my emails and phone calls to Geneva UNHCR that they should decide my case by them as Sri Lankan Government was directly involved in my case and UNHCR local staff was under great pressure.
I started calling Human rights organizations for Refugees in Sri Lanka, all of them told me they were only working for internally displaced people.
A doctor in the hospital told me that they have been told that I am a spy and should be discharged as soon as possible.
I called Brother Andrew and asked for his help. He said, "Police came to my house to know about you, now you have been declared a criminal and it’s a crime to help criminals”
My ECG report was not clear, and with hyper cholesterol level I was sent back to the detention center. My Eco report was withheld.
We stayed in the illegal detention for one month as if UNHCR did not exist.
Finally, out of three of us only I was called for an appeal interview.
The interviewer was under great stress. I came from the detention center but surprisingly the lady who was interviewing me was in no better condition than I was.
She told me that she will not record the interview, when I objected she agreed to make a recording.
She threw her 1st question which was very well prepared and had another set of multiple sub questions attached with it. She was supposed to ask me all these questions one by one but she chose to ask all of them in one go. I tried my best to answer the main question and the multiple attached questions, she was shouting, an argument started and she closed the recording machine for a while.
She was bent upon discussing my life in Pakistan while after coming to Sri Lanka threat to our life had increased many folds. She did not want to talk about the fact that Pakistani friendly Government of Sri Lanka has turned on us.
Horrified I spoke loudly about these genuine threats and requested UNHCR to protect us.
Her body language was of a helpless employee who knew that I was right but was asked to work on my failure.
In the end when the interview was over, she told me in a low tone.
“WE DO LISTEN TO OTHERS WHILE TAKING DECISION”
I was told to go back to detention center. I refused and started crying very loudly but was forced to return.
I knew something very suspicious was going on.
I decided to flee from the detention center. I started going for early morning walks to be familiar with the place.
The area had hundreds of Police officials, It seemed impossible to flee from there but surprisingly police men were very friendly.
It was not my smartness but their kindness that we 3 family members managed to get out from there. They clearly differentiated between criminals and fateful asylum seekers.
I love Sri Lankan Police.
In the beginning immigration officers were bent upon taking us to Boosa (jail) they were refused by the police department
As we left the detention center we went to a hotel to stay but I was extremely sick and was coughing very badly the hotel staff got very suspicious about us. We tricked them and left the hotel.
We went to Red Cross International office and asked for protection they refused to intervene with the big House (UNHCR) and advised us to go to UNHCR office which was closed by, We did not go there. We had no more trust in UNHCR Colombo.
We went from one place to another without knowing where we were going.
I kept calling UNHCR and kept updating them with our tender situation but they did not help.
UNHCR Geneva kept convincing me that we should go to UNHCR Colombo but we refused. We were once bitten a hundred times shy.
If we go there, they will give us the fail paper and call immigration officers secretly …….. So if there is no promise of asylum, there is no going to UNHCR.
Once we were physically attacked by a drunk house owner. We informed UNHCR nothing happened.
Another lady from UNHCR Geneva told me “’ your case is very complicated the decision can be positive as well as negative ‘’
After this I lost all my trust in UNHCR. I deleted all the articles written on sensitive issues. It was my work because of which UNHCR Google plus and Human rights watch Google plus and Unicef Google plus had added me to their limited friends circles but when I got trapped no one was there to help me. I remained in touch with Amnesty International UK and kept begging them to help me but to no avail.
Bottom line message I got from all these Human rights organizations was,
“UNHCR is God we cannot interfere with them. They cannot make a mistake. If they do not accept you no one can save your life”.No body realized that UNHCR Sri Lanka staff was under pressure from their Government.
I was disappointed and due to extreme fear my weight went from 60 kg to 40 kg. My mother and my sister also lost lot of weight.
My little sister Amala who has amazing computer skills rose to the occasion. She told me that she will save us all. Now she is very active on the internet running a campaign to save our life.
Once again I started looking for options to stay in Sri Lanka.
I called Deputy Controller of Immigration; he immediately recognized me and asked about my location. I asked him whether he will return my passport if I send someone from my Church with authority letter, he said no. I further asked him if I get married to a foreigner will he return my passport so that I can leave Sri Lanka?... His answer was inhuman he said
“No, Why did you come to Sri Lanka”
Oh world tell me with nowhere to go, should we be buried alive?!
On Sunday September 1, 2013…. Another bomb shell fell on me. I was in touch with Mr Bandara Assistant Controller of immigration. I had earlier requested him to talk to authorities to give us asylum in Sri Lanka.
He told me,
“Special Forces are looking for you. Mr.Perera General Controller of immigration held a meeting with UNHCR Colombo on Wednesday in which Mr.Perera was clearly told by UNHCR that they are not granting you refugee status.”
He further told me,
“change Your current location immediately escape… escape. this call must be getting traced. I will secretly give you your passports run to India.”
I was horrified and had sudden pain in my chest. I became very sick. I am a patient of thyroid with heart problems. My little sister Amala called UNHCR Colombo and asked them what was going on. UNHCR had recently sent me n email informing me that my asylum decision has been taken and the information I will receive will be to my benefit. The big house failed to answer my 11 years old sister what conspiracy was being cooked between UNHCR and Sri Lankan authorities. All the human rights organizations including UNHCR know that we are in hiding for the last 5 months. We are walking dead with an alarming level of threat from Sri Lanka as we bleed they
choose to be silent spectators.
We are exhausted with hiding. My mother decided to go to UNHCR Colombo and beg them once more to protect us. That was the last time we saw her. We were all crying as she left. She came back empty handed to the empty house. We left the place because of the fear of Sri Lankan authorities.
I bought a sharp knife and planned to stab myself in front of UNHCR. Later I cancelled this as I thought That UNHCR will even then not help me.
I bought blades and cut myself in a live YouTube video. It was not to harm myself but to be known and to be helped. Nothing happened..
After few days UNHCR announced asylum for me.
It was 29th Noember 2014. By now I was exhausted with my struggles to live. I received an Email from Ilija Todorovic. He was newly transferred to UNHCR Colombo. I had never heard of him. I called him. He informed me that he has granted Refugee status to me. I did not believe my ears and repeated his words. It was the happiest moment of my life.
On February 10 UNHCR finally gave asylum to my mother and my sister Amala also. It was again newly appointed Officer Ilija Todorovic who finally decided this case and did justice to us. I guess without him it was not possible. Our case was complicated, with 2 States Pakistan and Sri Lanka turned on us. UNHCR local staff was not powerful enough to say no to their Pakistan friendly Government.