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03 October 2020 – Sri Lanka

A Health Worker Taking a Blood Sample to Test for COVID-19 Antibodies in Colombo, (M. Srinivasan,
A Health Worker Taking a Blood Sample to Test for COVID-19 Antibodies in Colombo, (M. Srinivasan, "Coronavirus: Sri Lanka Sees Surge in Infections," The Hindu, 10 July 2020,

As of 28 September, Sri Lanka, with a population of 21.5 million, had detected only 3,360 cases of COVID-19. Although the country has been lauded for its containment of the virus, members of Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority have allegedly become stigmatised as carriers of the virus. There is also little information available concerning the impact of the virus on displaced populations, including migrants and refugees.

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. With no national asylum framework, asylum seekers and refugees are treated as irregular immigrants and may be subject to arrest, detention, and deportation under the Immigrants and Emigrants Act. In 2005, UNHCR signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Sri Lankan government allowing UNHCR to pursue its protection mandate for asylum seekers, refugees, and internally-displaced people. In 2019, UNHCR reported that there were 37,947 persons of concern in the country.

Sri Lankan immigration detention facilities are known to subject detainees to poor living conditions, raising concerns for the welfare of detainees during the pandemic. In 2017, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited Mirihana detention facility, and noted extreme overcrowding, poor shower and bathroom facilities, and lack of recreational activities. The group urged Sri Lankan authorities to “Cease holding migrants in Mirihana immigration detention facility immediately as it is entirely inappropriate for such purposes.” However, as of at least February 2020 the facility remained open.

Civil society organisations have criticised Sri Lanka’s prison conditions for being overcrowded, sometimes housing 5,000 inmates in a facility made for 800 people. On 7 July, an inmate at Sri Lanka’s largest prison, Welikada Remand Prison, tested positive for COVID-19. Subsequently, all inmates and staff members at the prison were tested for the virus, and all wards were cleansed and sanitised. The infected inmate had been transferred into the Prison from a drug rehabilitation centre in Kandakadu in Polonnaruwa district, located in Sri Lanka North Central Province. Shortly afterwards, it was reported that a cluster of at least 340 cases of COVID-19 had emerged from the Kandakadu centre. On 8 July, the government banned personal prison visits to prevent the spread of COVID-19.