5 YEARS ON: The impact of Sri Lankan Easter bombings on refugees, and UNHCR’s disastrous exit strategy

Five years after the devastating Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka (April 21, 2019), calls for justice and accountability remain largely ignored. The coordinated attacks struck churches filled with worshippers, resulting in the deaths of at least 290 people and hundreds more injured.

During my recent visit to one of the churches in Katuwapitiya, Negombo, I saw that the physical structure had been rebuilt and looked new. However, the emotional scars and fear among the people were still evident. The once-hospitable Christian community became suspicious and turned against refugees and asylum seekers after the attacks, Many refugees were evicted from their homes by landlords and faced protests from local mobs led by Buddhist monks when they sought shelter at church facilities. The police could not ensure their safety. 

Refugees in Sri Lanka come from about 15 countries, mainly from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Many of them are persecuted Christians and Ahmadi Muslims. They seek refuge in Sri Lanka, hoping to be resettled in a third country due to religious or political persecution in their home countries. However, Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, meaning refugees and asylum seekers do not have special rights or legal protections in Sri Lanka. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is responsible for determining refugee status and processing resettlement applications, but the process has become increasingly difficult.

Since March 2023, the UNHCR has stopped processing new applications for refugee status, leaving asylum seekers without any pathway to resettlement. Without refugee status, asylum seekers cannot stay in Sri Lanka legally and face the risk of deportation. As of the end of 2023, the UNHCR ceased providing assistance, including living allowances, schooling, and healthcare, leaving refugees with little support.

In Sri Lanka, refugees and asylum seekers are not allowed to work legally and are dependent on welfare from churches, NGOs, and UN agencies. There are about 500 refugees and asylum seekers in Sri Lanka, including over 100 children who cannot attend local schools and can only enrol in expensive international private schools, which many cannot afford.

Some refugees work illegally in restaurants and construction, where they face exploitation and abuse. Recently, two refugees working in a restaurant were arrested by the police, illustrating the precarious situation refugees face in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s lack of a national law or mechanism to offer permanent resettlement to refugees and the absence of a clear process for refugee status determination post-March 31, 2022, create significant uncertainty and risk of deportation for those seeking safety. The country’s agreement with UNHCR to facilitate refugee status determination has seen violations, with some asylum seekers arbitrarily arrested, detained, and deported upon arrival.


  • $75 can provide a refugee family with emergency food rations, covering their basic needs.
  • $50 can fund a month’s worth of school fees or supply a school pack for a refugee child.
  • $150 can assist a refugee family with rent or cover medical expenses.
  • $9,000 can support a refugee family’s resettlement application or cover return flights to a safer location in their home country.
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