Sri Lanka: UNHCR Refugees

Lord Alton of Liverpool Excerpts
Thursday 9th May 2019

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My noble friend speaks with great experience and insights, not just on the Commonwealth but on the two countries to which he refers, which are both friends of the United Kingdom. On the important issue of freedom of religion or belief, I visited Pakistan not so long ago, and I am sure that many of us have welcomed the recent steps that the Pakistani Government have taken in this respect, in what are pretty tense domestic environments. Indeed, yesterday we had the reported departure of Asia Bibi from Pakistan, which we all welcomed. We are working with the Pakistani Government on the importance of religious freedom and, as I said, we are also going to extend our work in building communal harmony and support for religious communities in Sri Lanka.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the role he played in helping to secure the release of Asia Bibi and her ability to travel to be reunited yesterday with her family in Canada. The persecution of that Christian woman and the Ahmadi community in Pakistan should motivate us all in promoting freedom of religion and belief, and particularly Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Can I take the Minister to Written Questions which I tabled yesterday, which I gave him copies of? One referred to the police stations where Ahmadis and Christians have been taking refuge in Sri Lanka, where, as the noble Lord has said, they are even denied basic food, humanitarian aid and assistance. Can he tell us precisely what discussions we have had with the UNHCR in making progress to help those groups? My second point was about the use of textbooks in Sri Lanka which have been criticised by UNESCO for stirring up religious hatred and the dominance of some groups against the position of minorities. Are we taking action to ensure that those kinds of textbooks are no longer available in Sri Lankan schools?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, again, the noble Lord speaks with great insight on these issues; equally, to return to the issue of Asia Bibi, I pay tribute to his efforts in that respect—I think we are all grateful for what has happened. But he is right that the real result will be not to have 1,000 Asia Bibi cases. We must work with countries such as Pakistan to ensure, first and foremost, that the long-term objective must be the overturning of these draconian blasphemy laws, which are used not just against minority communities in Pakistan but against Muslim communities themselves. I therefore assure the noble Lord that we are working closely with the Pakistani Government to ensure that we can build not just religious tolerance but understanding at a core level.

The noble Lord mentioned the UNHCR; we are engaged fully with the Sri Lankan authorities and UN agencies on the ground to see what level of support we can offer. There has been no specific request apart from the figures I quoted to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on specific refugees who may come to the United Kingdom. On the wider issue of textbooks, the noble Lord and I have discussed this matter, and I agree with him. We have a massive aid programme to various parts of the world, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and it is important that, as regards any support we provide, the values we seek to extend are reflected in the education and training, particularly which young children receive in those countries. I assure the noble Lord that we are working closely on that very objective with DfID colleagues.