On April 30, 2015, three Sri Lankan journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs) Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumuduni returned home after several years in exile in Nepal and short periods in India and the Maldives.
All three had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR in Nepal, but had renounced their refugee status and opportunity for permanent resettlement in a western country. Instead they decided to return home after the former Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was defeated at presidential elections on January 8 this year.
These Sri Lankans had previously faced death threats, arrests and detention and harassments due to their opposition to the authoritarian Rajapaksa, compelling them to flee their homeland. I had been in touch with them during the time they faced threats in Sri Lanka as well as during their exile, and I know they went only as a last resort and longed to return. But they found out that return was more difficult than being relocated. Numerous appeals made by them to Sri Lankan authorities and UNHCR didn’t yield results for more than 100 days. Appeals by Sri Lankan, Nepali and international media organizations also didn’t yield results.
As I tried to assist them in return, I found that there are very few international human rights and media freedom organizations are ready to assist journalists / HRDs to return home and continue their work, although many had come forward to assist those at risk to relocate. Only the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Frontline Defenders responded favourably to my appeals. Some didn’t reply for months and some claimed the nature of assistance required and generally the idea of assisting those in exile to return and continue work was not in their mandate. It literally took an earthquake to change the situation!
After the earthquake in Nepal, the Sri Lankan government rushed emergency assistance to Nepal and committed to bring back all Sri Lankans who were in Nepal. Sri Lankan colleagues, friends and organizations intensified their appeals and pressure on the Sri Lankan government to also get back Shantha, Jayampthi and Kumidini. Finally, they returned last week, during the early hours of April 30.
Exile is something close to my heart. I was also compelled to spend a few months in exile and when I returned, had to take complicated security precautions. I had often wondered about my complicity in assisting some of the most committed and courageous Sri Lankans to go into exile. In most of my overseas visits, I have met and spent time with those in exile and their families. I have also tried to keep in touch with families who had been left behind in Sri Lanka. In recent years, I found myself being called upon to assist exiled Pakistani HRDs coming to Sri Lanka. I often end up feeling frustrated, helpless and powerless to assist them in difficulties they face as exiles / refugees.
Hearing some wanting to return, especially friends and colleagues, has been extremely encouraging and empowering for me. But it is also frustrating to see that there is very little assistance available from the Sri Lankan government and the international community to that end. This should in no way undervalue the care, concern and support of some foreign governments, international media and human rights organizations and even individuals, who had come forward to offer protection and assistance to journalists and HRDs, including me, during very difficult and dangerous times.
Two exiled journalists / HRDs in Europe have also told me they have renounced their refugee status and are going to return to Sri Lanka in the coming months. Others have told me they may come later if the situation is conducive and safe for their return. Amongst those planning to return temporarily in the coming months is Poddala Jayantha, a well known journalist and press freedom activist who fled to India in the face of death threats. He returned to Sri Lanka and was then again compelled to leave for the US after a brutal assault and death threats as he was recovering. Poddala’s wife told me she is still very scared for his safety if he returns.
Many others do not want to return as yet, still unassured of their safety, including pending investigations or arrest warrants against them. Some do not want to return for fear of further persecution or ill-health. Some don’t want to return due to having children who have now learnt languages and settled down in new countries and some want to return once they get permanent residency or citizenship in countries where they have got refugee status.
Of course, some may have left even when they didn’t face serious risks, and they are unlikely to return from what they may consider greener pastures. This is article is not about them.
Government invitation to return – going beyond the rhetoric
Immediately after the January 8 elections, the new government invited exiled HRDs and journalists to return.
However, an absolute pre-requisite for HRDs / journalists in exile to return is to ensure there are no continuing harassments and threats to HRDs and journalists. In this regard, some of the recent incidents reported in the media, some of which I mentioned in an article on World Press Freedom day, will further discourage exiled journalists and HRDs from returning home. A second factor is to indicate clear progress in ensuring justice and accountability for previous attacks, threats and violence against HRDs and journalists, including against some of those in exile who are considering return.
As I tried to assist Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini in their struggle to come home, I felt that bringing home exiled journalists / HRDs home was not a priority to the new government, and that it was more a propaganda statement. However, the return of Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini gives me more hope, that there will be government and societal support for others in exile also to return. If the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, and his government are serious and genuine, they should establish a concrete program of action to assist exiled HRDs and journalists to return without further delay. Below are some ideas that could be considered;
- Appointment of a focal point in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or an appropriate Ministry.
The person should be someone sensitive to the situation of exiled HRDs and journalists and with capacity to deal with complications and challenges that are bound to come up. The person’s name, phone, email, skype should be made available publicly for any exiled HRD, journalist or their family and colleagues to contact, in Sinhalese, Tamil or English. The focal point should clearly clarify whether there are any pending arrest warrants or investigations against anyone intending to return and, if so, indicate details, including steps that will be taken to guarantee that such process will be carried out strictly in line with due legal process, within a specified time period.
- Clear instructions must be given to Sri Lankan embassies and High Commissions overseas to extend all possible assistance, advice and information to exiled HRDs and journalists who want to return.
- The government should initiate, support and facilitate “come and see” visits for those who want to return temporarily before making a final decision to come back. This is particularly important for those who will have to make difficult decisions about bringing back school going children and those who still have fears for safety.
- Some of those in exile await justice for attacks and threats against them. They need to be given clear and detailed updates on progress made so far and plans on future investigations and prosecutions. Where fresh statements, testimony is needed, and victims are unable to be physically present in Sri Lanka, possibilities such as video / skype testimony, written submissions and legal representations could be considered.
- Ways of offering back jobs (especially in state institutions) to those who lost them due to their free expression and activism should be explored and updates provided.
- A trust fund could be set up to provide financial support to those who want to come back. A significant portion must come from the Sri Lankan government. Additional funding could be solicited from well wishers, including individuals, organizations and foreign governments. The fund should be handled in a transparent and independent manner, with representation from human rights and media freedom organizations. Costs of returning and interim resettlement allowance could be amongst the needs such a fund could contribute to. The financial situation of the person returning, varying needs and whether return is permanent or temporary could be factors taken into consideration.
- International and regional organizations must be proactive and creative. They should review their mandates, if necessary, in order to contribute towards actual needs of HRDs and journalists who want to return home to continue their activism and journalistic profession. Foreign governments which have adopted policies and practices, including formal guidelines on human rights defenders and freedom of expression (such as the European Union, Norway and Switzerland) could consider support for those who want to return within the framework of these guidelines and policies, including financial support and diplomatic initiatives in relation to challenges such as ones faced by Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini in Nepal.
Most of HRDs and journalists who had gone into exile have suffered terribly – before they went and after being exiled. Their families have suffered. They had to give up a lot. They deserve respect and understanding for their decisions to stay away or return. If and when they want to return, they should be supported morally, politically and financially, considering specific needs and whether the return is permanent or temporary.
- The Sri Lankan government must take the lead role in this. Media institutions, media freedom and human rights organizations (local and international), foreign governments, donors and all others who value human rights and media freedom, especially Sri Lankan people, should support and contribute to such efforts.
(Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan writer and human rights / press freedom advocate. He has a court order restricting his freedom of expression in relation an ongoing investigation on anti-terror charges. His writings are available at www.rukiiiii.wordpress.com)
 For background, see http://groundviews.org/2015/04/29/sri-lankas-emergency-assistance-to-nepal-and-return-of-exiled-journalists/
 For example, see copy of arrest notice against writer, activist and academic Ratnajeevan Hoole at https://www.colombotelegraph.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Arrest-Order-Airport.pdf and https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/dilemma-of-those-in-exile-continues-frederica-jansz-speaks-out/
 See https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/dilemma-of-those-in-exile-continues-frederica-jansz-speaks-out/ and https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/on-behalf-of-returning-exiles/
 See http://groundviews.org/2015/05/03/world-press-freedom-day-2015-and-freedom-of-expression-in-sri-lanka/
 For more on reasons that led to exile and life in exile, and names of some journalists in exile (as of May 2013), see http://www.ceylontoday.lk/59-31472-news-detail-exiled-from-journalism.html