Scared refugees in Negombo flee homes

Days after a deadly bomb attack shook Negombo, killing over a hundred people praying at the St. Sebastian’s Church, a new, unexpected conflict has heightened tensions in the coastal town. Hundreds of refugees who live in Negombo, some 40 km north of Colombo, have been forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in nearby mosques and police stations, following a sudden hostility from a section of locals.

A mixed ethnic town, Negombo is home to a sizeable number of Catholics and fewer Muslims, and hundreds of refugees who fled persecution in their countries. Over 1,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, hailing from countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, live in the town, with government and UNHCR support. They have enjoyed cordial ties with the local community.

Blow to coexistence

However, the Easter attacks delivered a huge blow to their coexistence with the locals. Struggling to cope with the bombings, some locals now see the refugees as ‘Muslims’ and therefore, adversaries. Many of the refugees are from the Ahmadiyya Muslim, Christian, Shia and other religious minorities in their own countries, according to activists working in the area.

“House owners have asked their refugee tenants to leave immediately. Hundreds of them have no where to go, they have sought shelter at mosques and a police station, with very minimal facilities. They have been made refugees all over again,” said Human Rights activist Ruki Fernando. Incidents of refugees’ property being damaged by locals and physical assaults have also been reported, activists said. Responding to this, some of the residents have come together to form ‘Unity of Negombo Citizens’. “It is very difficult to understand what has happened… We all have a big responsibility to ensure that our relationship with out neighbours is not affected,” said Sister Renuka, who is part of the initiative. “There are extremists in all religions and it’s important not to generalise. What we need now is solidarity among all of us,” she said at a press conference.

Khalid Mahmud of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama said the organisation “vehemently condemns” the bombings as an “inhuman, heinous and shameful” act. “At such a time, we must stand with our Christian brothers and sisters,” he said.