(By Akitha Wijayasinghe)
For almost a year, Sri Lankans in the Middle East and many other countries have been complaining that Sri Lankan migrant workers are greatly inconvenienced due to the lack of assistance from the government for them to return home.
Many Sri Lankans working abroad lost their jobs as a result of the Covid 19 outbreak in March last year. Even after a year today, still there are many migrant workers trapped, in an extremely vulnerable situation reportedly, without being able to meet their daily necessities at least.
Still there are people under bridges and on roadways!
It is quite regretful to learn that still there are migrant workers who have had to take shelter under bridges, in parks and on the roadways, the national organizer of the Free Women Movement Hemamali Abeyratne, said.
Free Women Movement is an organization which has been struggling to secure a safe passage for migrant workers to return home.
Free Women Movement has received many stories of distress from migrant workers, she added.
“We have received many stories of people suffering, even with photographs sometimes, with no way to return home. It is quite tragic to learn that these hard working people who are the country’s major foreign exchange earners are left with no help at all. There are still people in Qatar and Jordan sleeping under bridges, in parks, on roadways and in supermarkets.
In one instance we were contacted by a woman working in Middle East and her story was heart breaking. She told us that she has had to work as a sex worker to earn money, in order to survive during the pandemic. She further told us that the people here would laugh at her, judge her but she has not been left with any other options other than to sleep with people, since the government does no intervention nor take responsibility to bring them, the migrant workers back to Sri Lanka.”
“Bringing people back is not enough, they have to be facilitated”
Commenting on the issue, National Organizer of the Free Women Organization further stated that bringing the migrant workers is not enough and that they should be provisioned and facilitated in many aspects.
“It is true that there is some government intervention regarding this, but the issue is far from over yet. Many lost their jobs amid the pandemic and it was their savings they had to rely on to survive until they return home. Either the Sri Lankan government or the Embassies did not intervene for their welfare. They had to survive on their savings and most of them were left with nothing when they returned. They cannot afford for hotels to quarantine or to do PCR tests.”
What about government quarantine centers? Migrant workers are not directed to those?
“That’s the biggest problem here. Even the government claims to direct them to government quarantine centers, it is not done. They all are sent to hotel quarantine in the end. All the migrant workers have to pay hotels the amount they are asked to and for PCR.
They do not possess such money most the time. That’s why we say that just bringing people back is not enough, their welfare should be taken care of. Building GEM towers, Lotus Towers prove to be futile without making people’s dreams on life a reality.”
Hotel quarantining is prioritized!
What’s the truth behind the claims that those who willing to quarantine in hotels instead of government centers are being prioritized in the repatriation program?
“It definitely exists behind the stage. They prioritize their associates first and they are brought back first. We have been contacted by many, claiming that while there were people who had provided their details to the embassy and obtained numbers to board, irrelevant people had been occupying their seats. This is such a chaotic situation.”
A system that exploits people!
“We can’t expect any good from a government like this. This is a system that exploits people, their labor. We need to change this. Otherwise this will continue forever.
We have pressed the government every possible way. We have a request to make from the society. All of them, these migrant workers are our own people. Sri Lankans. It does not matter if they are Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim, they are our own brothers and sisters. Sooner or later, this might become our very own problem. Please intervene this issue and stand for them.”
Unreliable Promises from the government
When inquired about this from the Deputy General Manager of the Foreign Employment Bureau Mangala Randeniya, he said with MediaLK that the construction of one quarantine center per province could is not practical in all the provinces as the government promised earlier and that steps would be taken to select hotels with facilities for this purpose.
He added that the government would bear the cost of the migrant workers’ quarantine in those hotels.
What is the latest situation regarding the repatriation program of foreign workers?
There has not been much of a difference. The current practice is to bring in the migrant workers to at government quarantine facilities considering the available capacity, and to allow those who can afford, to quarantine hotels.
How many foreign workers have been brought to Sri Lanka so far?
On an average, nearly 80,000 people have been brought back. There are 16 major countries including the Middle East where our migrant workers engage in employment. We have repatriated about 35,000 from those countries.
It is reported that a large number of people are stranded without jobs, as they are unable to come back to the country. What actions have the government taken in this regard?
It has now been decided to schedule flights to those countries to bring them back to Sri Lanka as soon as possible. Necessary steps are being taken to increase the quarantine facilities upon their arrival.
With directing local residents in the country to quarantine centers, will the government temporarily suspend the repatriation of foreign workers when there is not enough space in quarantine facilities?
The health sector is conducting quarantining programs and identifying infection patterns in the country. It will not be a hindrance for the repatriation program of migrant workers.
There is an allegation that the government is promoting hotel quarantining. What is the government’s respond to that?
That allegation is wrong. There is no such thing. The maximum number of quarantine centers that the government can maintain will continue to be maintained. People are directed to paid quarantine only if they can afford it. Hotel quarantining is not promoted in any way. They are always instructed them to inform us if they can not afford to quarantine in a hotel.
It was said earlier that a quarantine center would be set up in each province to quarantine migrant workers. Is there any progress in this regard?
We looked at the capability of hotels in Sri Lanka to provide quarantine facilities, regardless of the province. The bills for those hotels will be paid by the government and the bureau. If we consider the facilities available for quarantine, there is no way to construct emergency centers. Locations with existing facilities have to be transformed to quarantine centers. Therefore the most convenient places to look at were the hotels with a certain number of hotel rooms.
The Minister instructed those take necessary steps to convert such hotels to quarantine centers at the lowest possible rate and to provide facilities to migrant workers who are truly in need, at the Bureau’s cost. Those instructions have been followed currently.
This is what the Deputy General Manager Mangala Randeniya told MediaLK two months ago.
MediaLK – How many Sri Lankan migrant workers have been brought to Sri Lanka since the rising of thid Corona 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 wiill continue to operate. At present between, about 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 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 any people 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 none who can not 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 refuged migrant workers?
Mr. Mangala Randeniya – We provide them with their necessities