(Translated by Akitha Wijaysinghe)
For months, Sri Lankans in the Middle East and several other countries have reached out to authorities in several ways to voice their concerns and plight.
Many Sri Lankans working abroad have lost their jobs as a result of the outbreak of pandemic in March last year. As a result, many were reported to be in dire straits, being unable to at least meet their daily necessities.
It was reported in the recent past that some Sri Lankan workers have had to sleep on the roads, under bridges and in parks. Such incidents are reported continuously. The videos circulated in recent days show that many Sri Lankans who have been earning foreign exchange for the country for a long time and who were crowned as “Heroes” during the election period are now suffering a very sad and unjust fate. Some have already lost their lives and many are suffering without shelter, food or even health insurance.
Civil society groups have accused the Sri Lankan Embassy in Jordan for calling on police to tear gas Sri Lankans who had gathered at its office in Jordan. The group was requesting the Sri Lankan government to intervene in the issue and at least provide sufficient facilities till they could return home, including accommodation, food and health care. It was also alleged that they are being charged twice the actual value of the ticket to return to Sri Lanka.
Bring the workers back to Sri Lanka
Members of the Liberation Movement demand to cover the expenditure of the Sri Lankan migrant workers in their return journey to the country from the ‘Yuthukama’ Covid Relief Fund and not to charge them for quarantine.
They also demanded to arrange flights to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan and other countries where large numbers of migrant workers are stranded without income, to ensure their safe return to the country.
Sending letters to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, State Minister for Foreign Employment Promotion Piyankara Jayaratne, Minister of External Affairs Dinesh Gunawardena, Minister of Labor and Trade Relations Nimal Siripala de Silva and General Shavendra Silva, Head of the National Operations Center for the Control of the Covid-19 Virus, the Liberation Movement has made their requests.
They further requested that the Sri Lankan migrant workers arriving in the country be quarantined at government quarantine facilities, free of charge and not to reduce their priority in attempts to repatriate migrant workers who are unable to pay for the quarantine.
The Liberation Movement also says that according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), migrant workers are the largest contributor to total export earnings of Sri Lanka, accounting for nearly 8% of the country’s GDP by 2018.
However, when the Covid-19 crisis emerged, migrant workers were among the first that were abandoned by the government. There were various reasons for this over the months. They are at the bottom of the Foreign Ministry’s priority list for repatriation. Despite receiving more than Rs 1.6 billion from the Covid fund, our government has so far failed to contribute to flights to repatriate them.
Migrant workers have been out of work for months now and have had to take extremely difficult steps to survive. They are sleeping in the parks waiting for the news of their next return flight.
Assistance is provided temporarily at the discretion of Sri Lankan embassies, welfare organizations or private donors in the respective countries. Many are still stranded and have experienced embassies diverting them when they are searching for answers or new circumstances about when they can return home.
Excess money charged on the ticket: Priority to those who are willing to be quarantined in hotels
Many have had to pay high fees for chartered flights because the government does not provide funding for their return to Sri Lanka. The videos of the aggrieved workers state that some women have had to resort to sex work to raise money for their return flight to Sri Lanka. According to media reports, the families of these workers in Sri Lanka are selling their properties to finance the flights.
They are very tired after surviving the last few months and when they return home with limited earnings, there is no doubt that they will have to bear a huge debt burden and to suffer with unemployment in Sri Lanka as well.
Workers say embassies do not prioritize return flights to Sri Lanka because they cannot afford for a 14-day quarantine at a hotel. Although some of their employers are willing to pay for tickets, as the government quarantine facilities would have to be provided free of charge, they are left behind and people who can pay for quarantine in a hotel, are allowed to return.
In November and December, SriLankan Airlines operated four flights from Dubai to Colombo and one such flight from Abu Dhabi to Colombo. At the full capacity of these flights, an average of 60 migrant workers were able to return home by air, while 25 were carried from Abu Dhabi.
This ‘return home’ was possible only because not even the Sri Lankan government but private donors volunteered to sponsor these worker’s return tickets.
15 million from donors
Private donors and sponsors have spent over 15 million Sri Lankan rupees to facilitate the return of Sri Lankan migrant workers from Dubai, with an average ticket value of 1,200 dirhams (UAE) equivalent to Rs. 62000.
In October last year, the Office of the President reported that the balance of “Yuthukama” fund for Covid-19 Health Care and Social Security which was raised with the aid of the corporate donations, personal donations and direct deposits, is Rs. 1,659,015,132 (1.659 billion)
A month later, according to a statement from the Presidential Media Unit, Rs. 400 million had already been spent from the fund. What was the reason behind not using this fund to repatriate many stranded Sri Lankan workers and to provide adequate quarantine facilities?
The government has not given priority to these workers since the beginning of the epidemic, and according to the repatriation agenda of the Ministry of External Affairs, they have given the least priority, ranking below Sri Lankan students. While these workers are still stranded abroad, commencing a pilot project to attract tourists to Sri Lanka is unacceptable.
Quarantining in hotels is optional: There’s nobody abroad without the ability to return
MediaLK questioned Mangala Randeniya, Deputy General Manager of the Foreign Employment Bureau regarding the allegations.
MediaLK – How many Sri Lankan migrant workers were repatriated since the outbreak of the pandemic?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya – We have brought about 35,000 migrant workers to Sri Lanka from the Middle East and East Asian countries including Malaysia, Korea, Maldives and the Middle East since last March.
MediaLK – How many more are to come?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya – There are about 40,000 more to come ..
MediaLK – Will the program to bring them back to Sri Lanka continue?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya – It will continue to operate. At present between 600 and 700 migrant workers are being brought back to Sri Lanka daily.
MediaLK – How much does it cost to quarantine them?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya – Quarantine is completely free. If someone has money and wants to go to a hotel, necessary facilities are provided.
MediaLK – Does it mean that they are directed to paid hotels only on their request?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya – Yes. They should say that “We do not need government facilities, we need hotels” And they will be directed accordingly.
MediaLK – Isn’t it mandatory to quarantine in a hotel?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya : No one will be directed to hotels unless a request is made.
MediaLK – People who can afford their flight tickets are returning to the country. There must still be many abroad who have lost their jobs and with no money to afford a ticket to come home.
Mr. Mangala Randeniya – The government quarantine is provided to them free of charge.
MediaLK – Not that, are there workers out there who have no way to come to Sri Lanka?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya: There is no one who cannot come like that. Everyone can come. They can return according to the order of planes deployed.
MediaLK – So there is no one who cannot return to the country like that?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya – There is no one like that. Even a majority of those who were in camps have now been brought back to the country.
MediaLK – What has the government done about food and drink difficulties of the refugee migrant workers?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya – We provide them with their necessities.