In December, Sri Lankan authorities were praised for their quick and successful rescue of 104 Rohingya refugees, stranded at sea when their boat encountered mechanical difficulties. The GDP is concerned to learn, however, that soon after they were brought to dry land, the refugees were placed in two immigration detention facilities in Colombo–one of which was previously slammed by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for holding non-nationals in “dire” conditions.
According to reports, the group of refugees–amongst them 46 children, many unaccompanied–left Bangladesh on 3 December and were at sea until their rescue by the Sri Lankan navy on 18 December. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Myanmar welcomed the group’s rescue: “I wholeheartedly thank the Government of Sri Lanka for this intervention to rescue these vulnerable Rohingya refugees.” UNHCR’s Director for Asia and the Pacific similarly praised the Navy’s actions: “This is an example in humanity that all States in the region must follow to promptly and swiftly act to prevent the tragic loss of life at sea.” Other countries in the region, including Indonesia and Malaysia, have been reluctant to rescue boats carrying refugees–often leaving them drifting at sea for weeks on end.
However, shortly after their rescue, the group are reported to have been placed in a prison in Jaffna before then being moved to the Mirihana and Welisara immigration detention centres in the Sri Lankan capital.
A Sri Lankan human rights defender, Ruki Fernando, visited those detained in Mirihana on 27 December, distributed food items and toys, and spoke to several detainees through a barbed wire fence. Fernando also attempted to speak to those detained in Welisara the same day, but was prevented by centre management. According to him: “they were not too keen to allow interactions and discouraged visitors, although they did allow us some minimal interactions. This is surprising since even suspects of crimes in Sri Lankan prisons can receive visitors six days a week.”
According to Fernando, as of 2 February the refugees remained detained in the two detention facilities. “They may be released in few weeks, but there is no clear sign yet. Our concern is that even if they are released, they would end up on the streets without food or other assistance, as the State does not provide housing, food, education for kids etc.”
In 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited Mirihana and described the conditions as “dire.” In particular, the monitoring group reported severe overcrowding, poor shower and bathroom facilities, and a lack of any recreational activities for detainees. The group noted: “As a former police station, the facility is entirely inappropriate for holding people for prolonged periods” and recommended that Sri Lanka “cease holding migrants in Mirihana immigration detention facility immediately as it is entirely inappropriate for such purposes.”
2022 saw a significant increase in the number of Rohingya refugees embarking on perilous journeys across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in search of safety and security. According to UNHCR, more than 3,500 attempted sea crossings in 39 boats in 2022–a 360 percent increase on the number attempting the journey in 2021. UNHCR has also reported an alarming rise in the death toll on the route–at least 348 individuals went missing or died at sea during the year.
Sri Lanka’s detention of the Rohingya refugees mirrors the “reception” that many Rohingya refugees have faced across the region. In India, Malaysia, and Thailand, thousands have been locked up in overcrowded facilities before being summarily deported to Myanmar, where they face extreme dangers and risk to life.
Rohingya have faced repression and discrimination in Myanmar for decades. Since August 2017, thousands have fled to escape what human rights experts have descrived as crimes against humanity and acts of genocide perpetrated by the country’s military regime. Rohingya who remain in the country are confined to villages and camps by the military and face constant persecution.
- Sri Lankan Navy, “Navy Comes to the Aid of 104 Distressed Myanmar Nationals in Sri Lanka’s Waters,” 18 December 2022, https://news.navy.lk/oparation-news/2022/12/18/202212181700/
- OHCHR, “Coordinated Regional Action Urged to Stop Rohingya Deaths at Sea: Un Expert,” 22 December 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/12/coordinated-regional-action-urged-stop-rohingya-deaths-sea-un-expert
- UNHCR, “UNHCR Welcomes Rohingya Boat Rescue and Safe Disembarkation in Sri Lanka,” 19 December 2022, https://www.unhcr.org/asia/news/press/2022/12/63a02b2d5/unhcr-welcomes-rohingya-boat-rescue-and-safe-disembarkation-in-sri-lanka.html
- R. Ratcliffe, “Activists Appeal for Rescue of Rohingya Refugees Stranded at Sea in Leaking Boat,” The Guardian, 10 December 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/10/activists-appeal-rescue-rohingya-refugees-boat-bangladesh-malaysia
- UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, “Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on its Visit to Sri Lanka,” A/HRC/39/45/Add.2, 23 July 2018, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/1639474?ln=en
- R. Fernando, “Rescued at Sea, Why do Rohingya Refugees End up in Sri Lankan Detention Centers?” Global Voices, 17 January 2023, https://globalvoices.org/2023/01/17/rescued-at-sea-why-do-rohingya-refugees-end-up-in-sri-lanka-detention-centers/
- Al Jazeera, “UN Reports ‘Alarming’ Rise in Rohingya Deaths at Sea in 2022,” 17 January 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/1/17/alarming-rise-in-rohingya-lost-at-sea-in-2022-un-says
- Human Rights Watch, “Malaysia: Surge in Summary Deportations to Myanmar,” 24 October 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/24/malaysia-surge-summary-deportations-myanmar
- Human Rights Watch, “Thailand: Allow Newly Arrived Rohingya Access to Asylum,” 7 June 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/06/07/thailand-allow-newly-arrived-rohingya-access-asylum