International Mission for Refugees Aims to Look into Welfare of Displaced Sri Lankans Abroad
The global refugee crisis is a growing issue and one that only continues to pose as an accelerating problem for countries that see an influx of displaced persons risking their lives to enter their country, seeking the prospect of a better life. This issue is common for Sri Lanka where many of its citizens leave the country and travel abroad often through risky means and enter other nations illegally. With the aim of assisting Sri Lankans who have been displaced abroad, the International Mission for Refugees (IMR) was founded by Mr. Laxmanan Sanjeev, a Human Rights advocate with over 15 years of experience in the field. Over the course of his career, he has gained exposure to international humanitarian work at both national and international levels. He holds position as Chief of Mission of IMR.
Having witnessed the plight of Sri Lankan refugees abroad and the lack of a voice for them to get their issues across, his aim was to find a solution for refugee who would have either been displaced in other countries or who are still under process and are left to deal with settlement issues in transit countries with no support from the outside. He realised that there was a void that needed to be filled. So, through the IMR, him and his team would focus on assisting organisations such as the United Nations by implementing the UN process or procedure and act as a voice for those who need it the most. The IMR is also set to look into the general concerns of displaced Sri Lankans and South Asian refugees in transit countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia, and become a mediator who would help facilitate their paths to resettlement. This process will be supported by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the host countries, taking into consideration the International process and International framework of resettlement. We sat down with Mr. Laxmanan to find out more about this mission. Here are excerpts from the interview:
- You have embarked on a new goal with the setting up of the International Mission for Refugees (IMR). Can you tell us in what the IMR will work in the future when it comes to assisting Sri Lankan refugees abroad?
There are currently over 20,000 Sri Lankan refugees who have been displaced in South Asia. Our mission considers Persons of Concern, who are primarily refugees, and will encourage the international community to recognise asylum seeking opportunities for South Asian refugees. We see people who have had to access countries like India seeking refuge, and risk it by boat. Even though these international communities may resettle them, there are still many issues that refugees face. We would therefore, have the opportunity to liaise with country missions, receive feedback and gain an understanding of that country’s refugee policies. This would also allow us with the opportunity to understand how those countries would fare when it comes to their processes on refugee preferences in alignment with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). We will also work to implement Refugee Exchange Programs with countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada & the USA and initiate a constructive dialogue with the respective countries.
- In what ways do you believe will Sri Lankan refugees abroad benefit from the work of this mission?
Sri Lankan refugees who are in the transit countries will be offered a decent means of resettlement, with the cooperation of the UNHCR and other respective refugee missions abroad. Through our mission, we would be working very closely with relevant bodies who deal with refugee-related issues, civil societies, NGOs, and the UNHCR. Our focus would also extend towards looking into resettlement issues, working out funding mechanisms with the EU Delegations, US State department, and other countries such as Canada, New Zealand & Australia who are most interested towards working on the global refugee crisis and assessing people who would like to return to Sri Lanka either voluntarily or due to the unsuccessful processing of their refugee statuses for instance.
This would require our team of professionals to support the International Organization for Migration, the UNHCR, country refugee councils, and other government authorities with respect to carrying out the groundwork, such as visiting refugee camps and temporary shelters, gaining an understanding of their current situation and initiating dialogue through consultations with national and international non-government organizations (NGOs) and country systems. Since 2012, there have been reports published by the UNHCR on Sri Lankan refugees about their concern on resettlement. The number of people who have actually been resettled to third countries has been very minimal. We are currently in the process of discussions and meetings with delegates and refugee activists, requesting the UNHCR to make a report on Sri Lankan refugees and those who have been living in transit countries as a result of their resettlement procedures. These refugees could then start planning out their future on their own.
- There are global bodies such as the UNHCR, Refugee International, and US Committee for Refugees. In what ways would your mission’s goal differ from them?
The role of the UNHCR is to assist refugees in gaining protection and security, especially for those who have been left stranded in transit countries or left displaced, requiring support either with resettlement, protection, integration, or if given the opportunity, the chance to come back to their native countries. As a global body that looks into the wellbeing of refugees abroad, the UNHCR also works in tandem with those relevant governments to help refugees with their asylum claims. When it comes to the work being done for Sri Lankan refugees, this requires working with the host country, refugee communities, government stakeholders and authorities to break down barriers and eventually give refugees a voice and enable them to overcome their settlement issues.
The effectiveness of the UNHCR in fulfilling its principle mandates on refugee protection and welfare always depends on the cooperation of the host country. Some of the countries in which the IMR is preparing to work in, such as Thailand and Malaysia, have zero-tolerance when it comes to refugee welfare, and these are the countries that have never accepted any of the protocols from the 1951 Refugee Convention – UNHCR. The IMR will work as a bridge between respective government authorities, policy-level individuals (Ministers, Prime Ministers, Attorney-General’s Departments. etc.) and National Human Rights Commissions in these transit countries and partner with the UNHCR and other refugee agencies in the country. The IMR will also facilitate more meetings and dialogues with government bodies to bring flexible laws on UN reorganized refugees in these countries if they are, for instance, arrested under immigration raids etc.
We are also working with a few countries with respect to the National Human Rights Commissions in the hopes of implementing a project that will look into the welfare and protection of refugee women and children. The IMR will identify gaps that tend to exist among Sri Lankan refugees abroad (at this moment in time), determine their status quo, to act as an advocate, and to facilitate a passage in line with international procedures, and to eventually ensure that their issues and needs are met and that a solution to their issues is established.
- What kind of attributes or global influence does your mission possess at this stage?
I founded the IMR, which was registered in Canada in 2020, and which today operates on the strength of a team of like-minded individuals with a passion in the subject of human rights, refugee rights, and international relations. The mission is still in its infancy but was initiated with ambitious goals set in mind, especially aimed towards working to make a lasting difference for Sri Lankan refugees who have been stranded abroad. Being a permanent representative at the Human Rights Council in Geneva for the last five years has enabled me to network with different stakeholders both, professionally and personally and the insight gained from this network of individuals and organizations is valuable to the sort of work that we are planning on carrying out. So, building associations with multilateral institutes will definitely support us in laying forth a firm foundation in the South Asian region. As we already have past experiences with country missions of countries such as the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, European delegations, and the UNHCR, we are very confident that the IMR will work as an institute that will initiate a movement that is committed to working on refugee affairs in the South Asian region.
- Where is the mission based at the moment and what type of work is the mission set to embark on in the near future?
The IMR has its headquarters based in Canada and is set to expand its operations in Malaysia and Thailand, setting up its regional representations in the near future. Whilst these instigations take place, the team at the IMR are set to focus on establishing a rapport with agencies such as the country’s Refugee Councils, Refugee International, Thailand – International Rescue Committee, and national and international refugee organisations that currently work in the area of refugee and displaced persons around the world. Our work will entail initiating consultations/dialogues with government bodies, the UN, EU country missions, NGOs, and local authorities. Other activities will include monitoring international protection for refugee women and children, which is one of the main areas of focus for us, as well as facilitate a monitoring resettlement process for refugees in transit countries. Engaging in productive dialogue with local authorities, ministries and civil societies on refugee welfare will be a continuous process. We are also in contact with refugees living in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia via online communications, assisting them and referencing them to different international and national NGOs that currently work in the region, see to their day to day issues and keep monitoring their health issues, especially during this pandemic period.
- When setting up an organization such as this what challenges and positive aspects did you have to face while you were in the process of setting up the IMR?
Overall, I would say that the setting up of the IMR was a bit of a challenge and was quite tricky during our initial stages. I knew that I always wanted to recruit the best individuals to assist me in the process, especially considering that ours is an unpaid job at this stage and with us being a non-profit organization as well. However, irrespective of this, I received such an optimistic response to my calls and texts from my friends who were willing to join this cause as volunteers, and these people have come on board to join the IMR committee from all around the world. The IMR currently has representatives from the USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Sri Lanka, and England, and our board has a number of prominent advisors who are experienced in refugee and migration-related fields. The IMR is a pure combination of young professionals who are contributing their time and effort to this great cause.
Another challenge we faced came with financing the organization. Immediately after initiating the IMR as a non-profit organization under the Canadian Not-for-Profit Corporations Act last year, the Annual General Meeting was held, and very active young members of the community were assigned to work on project funding some strategies and to report to management. Some interesting and modern funding systems have been discussed by them and approved by the board. At the very earliest, we will be going public with some of those project ideas that were brought forward by them. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 aftermath, we were unable to pitch to any advocacy programs, so we are working on alternative ways where we can meet the public via different online platforms and put forward our program ideas. As part of the International Mission for Refugees, we believe that promoting human rights, improving domestic systems in host countries, and creating a safer environment for vulnerable communities will occur simultaneously.