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Sri Lanka

No Escape For Traumatized Pakistani Refugees In Sri Lanka

Pakistan is ranked among the most dangerous countries in the world for religious minorities. Marginalized and persecuted for their faith, minorities such as Christians, flee to countries like Sri Lanka.

In the streets of Negombo, Sri Lanka
In the streets of Negombo, Sri Lanka
Naeem Sahoutara

NEGOMBO Young choir members sing hymns in Sri Lanka's southern city of Negombo. They are singing for strength and patience in difficult times. Unlike Sinhala or Tamil, the languages spoken on this island nation, they're singing in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

There are Christians who fled Pakistan to seek asylum in Sri Lanka. One woman, who asks that I don't use her name, tells me a story about being united in love but divided in faith.

A Muslim woman, she married a Christian man — a taboo in Pakistan. The decision outraged her family and even sparked calls to have her husband killed. In Pakistan, interfaith marriages are rare, and even rarer these days, with growing religious intolerance.

Fearing for their safety, the couple fled to Sri Lanka three years ago. Thousands of people from religious minorities in Pakistan – Christians, Shiites and Ahmadiyas – flee persecution and discrimination by the Sunni Muslim majority.

Militant groups linked to Taliban and Al-Qaeda have openly attacked their houses of worship, killing hundreds and injuring many more.

Inside a Roman Catholic church in Negombo — Photo: Ronald Saunders

It's why many people leave, seeking a better life elsewhere. They come to places like Negombo, which today looks like a mini-Pakistan, with hundreds of Pakistanis living here quietly, almost unnoticed. Most of them don't want to be identified.

Jessica William, 50, arrived here with her four children and two grandchildren in 2012. "My son worked as male nurse and he used to visit some Muslim patients in their homes," she told me. "One day, he was taking a patient to the doctor when they came under armed attack. My son was also shot. Later, he found out that those people had links with terrorists. He was so scared that he left the job and left the country. Those people started searching for my son and harassed the family. So, we also left our home," she recalled.

Colombo has enjoyed good diplomatic relations with Islamabad, which helped it end violence by Tamil militants, who were allegedly supported by India. But things dramatically changed two years ago when Sri Lankan authorities, fearing an influx of terrorists, stopped issuing visas on arrival to Pakistanis.

Some 100 migrants, mostly men, were forcibly sent back. Political observers say New Delhi was putting pressure on Colombo to counter the growing influence of Islamabad on the island nation. The move has left hundreds of asylum seekers stranded and scared.

The Negombo fish market — Photo: Pete Sadler

During my visit to the city, four Pakistani bishops attending the International Bishops Conference in Colombo met frustrated families.

The migrants pleaded the bishops to press America or European countries to take them in.

People like Jessica are angry and fed up. "We cannot work, whatever we can we do secretly because we have to pay thousands for rent. Let alone food and other things. We spend life in constant fear. I worked as head of a charity organization that helped and sheltered children with special needs. I used to clean and care for the children of others. But, today there is no one to protect my children," she said.

Sri Lanka might be an attractive place for tourists with its lush-green mountains and beautiful temples but the life of migrants is another story, she said.

"We have no access to the hospitals, schools or jobs. We are forced to secretly work to buy food and pay rent. I've one piece of advice for you son! Think of yourself before thinking of anyone else," she told me.

Following criticism from UN's refugee agency, the Sri Lankan government has stopped deportations. But the lengthy asylum process is still testing the patience of migrants from Pakistan.

Some have been here for 10 years. Their asylum requests denied, they are in hiding.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Wagner's MIA Convicts: Where Do Deserting Russian Mercenaries Go?

Tens of thousands of Russian prisoners who've been recruited by the Wagner Group mercenary outfit have escaped from the frontlines after volunteering in exchange for freedom. Some appear to be seeking political asylum in Europe thanks to a "cleared" criminal record.

Picture of a soldier wearing the Wagner Group Logo on their uniform.

Soldier wearing the paramilitary Wagner Group Logo on their uniform.

Source: Sky over Ukraine via Facebook
Anna Akage

Of the about 50,000 Russian convicts who signed up to fight in Ukraine with the Wagner Group, just 10,000 are reportedly still at the front. An unknown number have been killed in action — but among those would-be casualties are also a certain number of coffins that are actually empty.

To hide the number of soldiers who have deserted or defected to Ukraine, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is reportedly adding them to the lists of the dead and missing.

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Some Wagner fighters have surrendered through the Ukrainian government's "I Want To Live" hotline, says Olga Romanova, director and founder of the Russia Behind Bars foundation.

"Relatives of the convicts enlisted in the Wagner Group are not allowed to open the coffins," explains Romanova.

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