Media Center / 10 Top Questions on Refugees and Asylum-Seekers answered by UNHCR’s Representative in Sri Lanka Michael Zwack on World Refugee Day, 2013

10 Top Questions on Refugees and Asylum-Seekers answered by UNHCR’s Representative in Sri Lanka Michael Zwack on World Refugee Day, 2013

Posted on: 20 / 07 / 2013

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

The latest UNHCR figures in the Global Trends 2012 report released Wednesday show that as of the end of 2012, more than 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement compared with 42.5 million at the end of 2011. This includes 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum-seekers, and 28.8 million people forced to flee within the borders of their own countries.

The number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Sri Lanka is tiny compared with other countries in the Asian region; for example, Pakistan hosts more than 1.6 million refugees while at end May 2013, Sri Lanka hosts 123 refugees and 971 asylum-seekers.

1. What is UNHCR’s mandate and who are the people UNHCR assists?

UNHCR is the UN agency mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. We seek to uphold people’s fundamental right to seek asylum and find refuge in another country and we support them to find solutions when they are found to be refugees. UNHCR also provides international protection to people who have no country of nationality and are considered stateless. We help them to acquire citizenship. As a result of increased displacement within national boundaries, UNHCR can also provide protection assistance to conflict-affected internally displaced people (IDPs).

2. Can you explain the difference between an asylum-seeker, a refugee and a migrant??

An asylum-seeker is someone who has made a claim that he or she is a refugee, but the case has not been finalized. He/she is still in the process of seeking asylum.

A refugee is someone who has been recognized as meeting the international criteria of a refugee. He/she has crossed his/her country’s border, can demonstrate a fear of persecution for any of a number of defined reasons and cannot seek help in his/her own country.  Some States have asylum laws and systems to do refugee status determination. Other States, like Sri Lanka, do not have such legislation. In the absence of such a system, UNHCR, at the invitation of the host Government, exercises its mandate to determine which asylum-seeker is a refugee. According to customary international law, States cannot forcibly return refugees to a territory where they face danger.

An internally displaced person is someone who has fled his/her home but has not crossed an international border. Often this happens in relation to ethnic conflict or natural disasters.

A migrant is a person who leaves his/her country of origin, usually as a result of financial, income-related or educational reasons or any other reason not related to a fear of persecution.

UNHCR considers refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless people, internally displaced people, as well as refugees and IDPs who are returning home as “persons of concern”. Migrants are not UNHCR’s persons of concern as they do not require international protection.

3. What does UNHCR do in Sri Lanka?

UNHCR has been working in Sri Lanka for over 25 years. We were initially invited by the Government of Sri Lanka to assist with the mass repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees from India in 1987. Since then the Government has requested UNHCR to continue working in the country and our activities have evolved quite considerably according to the situation. The agency has supported the Government to provide assistance to IDPs affected by many years of conflict and those affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. UNHCR hasassisted IDPs to return home in the former conflict areas and supports their reintegration. In addition, we help Sri Lankan refugees who are abroad to return home, if they wish.

Importantly, under an agreement signed with the Government of Sri Lanka, the authorities cooperate with UNHCR to receive asylum-seekers from other countries and determine whether they qualify to be refugees.

4. How does UNHCR determine whether an asylum-seeker is a refugee?

When UNHCR conducts Refugee Status Determination, we undertake a detailed process of interviewing and assessing each individual asylum-seeker’s account of why he/she has left his/her home country. It often takes a considerable amount of time not only to conduct interviews but also to acquire specific information about the country they are coming from and verify the events they describe. If a person is not recognised as a refugee, he/she has the right to appeal and have the case reconsidered. If the person is still not recognised during the appeal process, then he/she is no longer an asylum-seeker and therefore no longer a person of concern to UNHCR.

UNHCR has a good relationship with the Government of Sri Lanka and keeps it fully informed at various stages of the refugee status determination process for each individual. This allows the Government to be able to fulfil its obligations to protect recognised refugees and people seeking asylum. In Sri Lanka, the government allows refugees to access medical care services and schooling. Unfortunately, neither refugees nor asylum-seekers are allowed to work in the country. To ensure that authorities in Sri Lanka know about refugees’ and asylum-seekers’ special status, the latter are issued with certificates for identification purposes which have special security features to prevent forgery.

If it wishes and in accordance with its own laws, a government can send failed asylum-seekers back to their home countries, including by deportation. This should be done in a humane manner.

In Sri Lanka, according to our latest statistics end-May 2013 there are 123 refugees and 971 asylum-seekers from other countries.

The global statistics report also shows that there are 132,782 Sri Lankan refugees and 14,008 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers in various countries in the world, mainly in India

5. What are the solutions that UNHCR can seek for recognised refugees?

Normally, there are three solutions for refugees. They can repatriate (if they want to return home), they can integrate into the country where they have sought asylum, or they can be resettled to a third country. The Government of Sri Lanka does not have provisions to allow recognized refugees to integrate and only a very small number have expressed a wish to return to their home country. Therefore resettlement to another country that accepts them remains the only solution available for most of those who UNHCR in Sri Lanka determines to be refugees.

In the case of resettlement, UNHCR negotiates with third countries which offer to accept refugees permanently. The process between refugee recognition and negotiating a suitable, safe solution for recognized refugees can be a long one. While this takes place, States should provide protection and access to essential services to recognised refugees. Sri Lanka has been very tolerant to asylum-seekers and recognized refugees waiting to be resettled or to return home.

6. What assistance does UNHCR Sri Lanka provide to refugees and asylum seekers?

UNHCR does not provide any assistance to asylum-seekers, whose claims are still being processed. Only those recognized by UNHCR to be refugees receive assistance.

Upon lodging a claim for asylum, individuals are registered by UNHCR in Sri Lanka and receive an identification certificate which states their special status in Sri Lanka. UNHCR will then start its refugee status determination process. If individuals are recognised as refugees, UNHCR provides them with a monthly subsistence allowance to help them to live while solutions are being negotiated, as they are not permitted to work. In addition, refugee children are supported by UNHCR to attend schools in Sri Lanka, while adults are also supported to attend vocational training and English language courses.

When a resettlement country that is willing to accept a refugee has been identified, UNHCR handles all the formalities and documentation with the respective authorities and guides refugees through the process, making sure they complete all the steps required. UNHCR also negotiates with other agencies to issue travel documents and book flights for refugees who resettle. It is a great success story when refugees are able to achieve one of the three sustainable solutions to their displacement and can live in a safe and secure environment.

7. Are more people coming to Sri Lanka to seek asylum and why?

UNHCR offices throughout the region, including here in Sri Lanka, are seeing an increased movement of people by both authorised and unauthorised means. Nearly all asylum-seeker arrivals to Sri Lanka are by authorised means. These individuals come from a number of countries in the region. UNHCR attributes these increased movements to the sometimes tense situations in many neighbouring countries.

It is, however, difficult to generalise on the reasons for increased movement of people across borders. Each asylum-seeker claim must be determined individually on its own merit, and reasons for seeking asylum can vary considerably.

8. Are the people leaving Sri Lanka in boats considered migrants or asylum-seekers?

UNHCR does not determine whether people leaving Sri Lanka are migrants or asylum-seekers. It is important to note that opting to leave any country by means of irregular boat movements is risky and dangerous, not to mention very costly. UNHCR is concerned about the increase in irregular boat movements, tragedies and large loss of life that have occurred in the region, mainly in the Bay of Bengal.

In fact, the Government of Sri Lanka recently rescued about some 170 people reportedly from Bangladesh and Myanmar who were spotted drifting off the coast of Sri Lanka. UNHCR praised the Sri Lankan Navy and the Government for rescuing them, allowing them to disembark and for providing them with emergency medical assistance. This was the correct and humane thing to do. Those rescued reported that a number of them had died at sea during their journey, highlighting the dangers of such boat movements.

In 2008, a similar incident occurred when 70 people were rescued off Sri Lanka’s eastern coast. At that time, the Government of Sri Lanka allowed UNHCR to assess these peoples’ asylum claims and find resettlement solutions for any recognised refugees. UNHCR is in regular contact with the Government of Sri Lanka about the recent arrivals to assist these people in a similar manner by identifying if they are persons of concern to the organisation. Those rescued in February this year are accommodated at the Boosa detention centre near Galle.

9. What is life like for refugees and asylum-seekers when they are in other countries?

Being a refugee or an asylum-seeker is not easy. It takes a lot of courage and strength to flee your home and family because of fear for your security. Refugees and asylum-seekers live in a foreign country trying to make ends meet and are unsure of their future. One important thing is that organisations which assist them have space and time to find sustainable solutions for them. In Sri Lanka it is possible for UNHCR to do this valuable work with the cooperation of the Government.

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

After a long career in UNHCR, my greatest wish is obviously that solutions for refugees are found in their home countries and that they can eventually return home. But, if this does not happen, I hope that all individuals and governments can act with humanity and understanding towards refugees and asylum-seekers and treat them according to international norms. Sri Lanka has so far done a commendable job at this. I hope the Government continues to abide by its international obligations and allows UNHCR to carry out the mandate which has been entrusted in us through the United Nations General Assembly.

For more information on World Refugee Day and how UNHCR works to help refugees, please go to

Press Contacts:


Vivian Tan – Senior Public Information Officer +668 1827 0280 /