Media Center / 10 Top Questions on Refugees and Asylum-Seekers answered by UNHCR’s Representative in Sri Lanka Michael Zwack on World Refugee Day, 2012

10 Top Questions on Refugees and Asylum-Seekers answered by UNHCR’s Representative in Sri Lanka Michael Zwack on World Refugee Day, 2012

Posted on: 02 / 11 / 2012

On 20 June, UNHCR marks World Refugee Day, remembering the struggle of millions of people fleeing violence and persecution across borders.

The latest UNHCR figures in the Global Trends 2011 report released Monday show that in 2011 more people became refugees than at any time since 2000. Worldwide, 42.5 million people ended 2011 either as refugees (15.2 million), internally displaced (26.4 million), or in the process of seeking asylum (895,000). The number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Sri Lanka is tiny compared with other countries in the Asian region; for example, Pakistan hosts around 1.7 million refugees while Sri Lanka mid-June 2012 hosted 88 refugees and 243 asylum-seekers.

On the other hand, there are 136,605 Sri Lankan refugees and 8,634 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers in various countries in the world, mainly in India.

1. Who is a refugee and who is an asylum-seeker and what is a person of concern to UNHCR?

There is a lot of confusion about some of these terms, particularly here in Sri Lanka where sometimes displaced people are called refugees and migrants are called asylum-seekers so I will try and make it clear. A refugee is a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to or, owning to such fear, is unwilling to avail her/himself of the protection of that country. Persons who are fleeing armed conflict or civil unrest in their home countries can also be considered refugees. Refugees often return home after a conflict is over, and that’s happening here with some Sri Lankan refugees returning home from exile abroad. An asylum-seeker is someone who has made a claim that he or she is a refugee and is waiting for that claim to be accepted or rejected. A migrant is someone who leaves their country of origin for financial reasons or other
reasons, such as family or education. Refugees, including returning refugees, and asylum-seekers are considered people of concern to UNHCR because they come under our international mandate. Migrants are not considered people of concern to UNHCR even though sometimes migrants and asylum-seekers use the same means to reach other countries.

2. Are people leaving Sri Lanka illegally in boats migrants or asylumseekers?

That is not for UNHCR in Sri Lanka to determine. Some could be migrants seeking a better life in another country others could be asylum-seekers who believe they are not safe here. If they do claim they are refugees that claim will be considered in the country where they land, either by the government or if there is no national asylum process, by UNHCR. In Sri Lanka, as well as throughout the world, UNHCR has been mandated to determine the status of asylum-seekers when they are in countries other than their own.

3. What are the obligations and rights of refugees and asylum-seekers?

Refugees and asylum-seekers are required to respect the laws and regulations of their country of asylum. They are not above the law. If in the unfortunate event that they are suspected of committing a crime then they can be prosecuted under the law, with one exception: they cannot be deported back to their home country. In Sri Lanka, it is rare for us to hear of refugees and asylum-seekers breaking the law.

A refugee has the right to safe asylum. They should receive the same basic help as any other foreigner including access to medical care, schooling and the right to work. In Sri Lanka, the government gives access to medical care and schooling but refugees and asylum-seekers are not allowed to work.

4. How are refugees protected?

Normally, governments guarantee the basic human rights and physical security of their citizens. When a refugee has fled to another country UNHCR’s main role is to ensure that states are aware of and act on their obligations to protect refugees and people seeking asylum. One of the most important things for states to know is that they may not forcibly return refugees to a territory where they face danger.

5. Where does Sri Lanka stand in comparison to other countries in terms of producing and receiving refugees and asylum-seekers?

The latest global statistics came out on Monday and are available on UNHCR’s website The statistics shows there are 136,605 Sri Lankan refugees in various countries in the world while in Sri Lanka, according to our latest statistics mid-June 2012 there are 88 refugees and 243 asylum-seekers from other countries.

Pakistan is the largest refugee hosting country in the world with 1.7 million refugees, followed by Iran (887,000), then Syria (775,400).

6. How do asylum-seekers enter Sri Lanka and then what happens?

Virtually all asylum-seekers that we know of arrive by air to Colombo. As the government doesn’t have its own national asylum legislation, UNHCR, under an agreement with the government undertakes refugee status determination—that is what we call the detailed process of interviewing and assessing each individual’s story as to why they left their home country. Of course, we keep the government fully informed on a regular basis regarding the results of these procedures. Asylum-seekers generally approach UNHCR’s office and lodge a claim for asylum. This can be a long process as our staff must check to see if the claims
are credible. Then, if they are determined to be refugees, we do our utmost to try to find a solution for these refugees. Normally, there are three solutions – repatriation (if they want to return home), integrating into the country where they have sought asylum, or resettlement to a third country. In Sri Lanka, the government doesn’t allow refugees to stay here, and only a tiny number wish to return home, so UNHCR looks for countries which can offer resettlement to these refugees. That also can take time and depends on the goodwill of these resettlement countries.

7. How difficult is it for refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries?

Being a refugee or asylum-seeker is always difficult. People have left their homes and families because they feared for their own security they had no choice. They are living in a foreign country trying to survive and unsure of their future for themselves and their families. One of the most important things is for there to be the space and time to find solutions for these people and that’s the current situation here in Sri Lanka. Refugees and asylum-seekers once they have lodged a claim are issued with certificates which have special security features to prevent forgery. This allows the authorities to understand that they have a special status and are not visa overstayers.

8. What happens to asylum-seekers whose claims are rejected?
On a regular basis, UNHCR gives the Department of Immigration and Emigration a list of asylum-seekers whose claims have been rejected. Failed asylumseekers are no longer considered in need of international protection or considered people of concern to UNHCR. If it wishes, in accordance with its own laws, a government can send these people back to their home countries, including by deportation. However, this should be done in a humane manner.

9. Why is it important for the government to allow space for asylumseekers and refugees in Sri Lanka?

It’s a fundamental principle of international customary law that refugees should not be expelled or returned to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened. By allowing asylum-seekers to lodge their claims and wait until UNHCR has determined whether they are valid or not, and by allowing refugees to live here until UNHCR can find a solution for them, Sri Lanka is acting in line with international and humanitarian norms. Sri Lanka has not yet signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol which are the foundation of  efugee protection but it is important that they continue to act in the spirit of the Convention to protect refugees.

10. What is your greatest hope for refugees and asylum-seekers?

After a long career in UNHCR, my greatest wish is obviously that people are not forced to flee their homes and countries to find safety and protection. But, if this does happen, I hope that all individuals and governments act with humanity and understanding towards refugees and asylum-seekers and adhere to international norms in the way they are treated.

For more information on World Refugee Day and how UNHCR works to help those displaced please go to