Photo courtesy of Progressive Women’s Collective

From Lithuania, Italy, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other many countries the plea is the same: bring us home. From cities and villages across Sri Lanka the plea is the same: bring our family members home.

Since the first Covid-19 case was discovered in Sri Lanka over one year ago, the warnings have been consistent; the country needed a plan to bring home its migrant workers, especially the most vulnerable – women working as domestic helpers in the Middle East.

According to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), at least 1.2 million Sri Lankans are employed in other countries, a large proportion in the Middle East. In 2019, their remittances contributed US$ 6.7 billion into the economy, representing eight per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Labour Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva told Parliament earlier this month that by December 30 last year, 3,923 workers in the Middle East had been infected by Covid-19. Of these, 3,823 had recovered.

The death toll among migrant workers abroad from Covid-19 stands at 89. The government has promised to pay Rs. 500,000 as compensation to the families of workers who have died abroad but one year after the first death was reported, no compensation has been forthcoming.

In total, there are another 68,000 Sri Lankans around the world who are awaiting repatriation. Foreign Ministry Secretary Jayanath Colombage said that repatriation was at a slow pace because of  insufficient quarantine facilities, adding that the ministry has spent Rs. 82 million as relief to migrant workers, including sending dry rations, and brought 31,102 of them home.

But the government’s claims of assisting them are contradictory to the reality faced by the stranded women left at the mercy of heartless agents and employers, as well as their families at home desperately trying to get them back.

“These migrant workers are the most vulnerable. They have always been discriminated against and marginalized. They are deemed unworthy of attention. The Covid-19 situation has exposed the callousness of those who are supposed to be responsible for their welfare,” said National People’s Power MP and a member of the Progressive Women’s Collective, Dr. Harini Amarasuriya.

“There should be a transparent system in place to bring these people back. It is unacceptable to say there is a shortage of facilities,” she added, pointing out that although some of the workers were unregistered, they were still Sri Lankan citizens who needed help from the government in an unprecedented situation.

There are numerous videos on social media of direct appeals to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, highlighting the harsh conditions the women are facing, dependent on charity and the kindness of strangers. Some are sick but receive no treatment, others are stranded in embassies without adequate food while one woman even spoke of resorting to prostitution to earn the Rs. 250,000 demanded for her airline ticket, PCR tests and to quarantine at home. Without salaries or savings how can they raise this money, they ask. Some showed burnt and swollen limbs from abuse at the hands of vicious employers. In Kuwait, women were brutally beaten by police when they tried to appeal for help at their own embassy.

The women also criticized the government’s decision to bring in tourists and open the airport while claiming it was unable to repatriate migrant workers due to a lack of quarantine facilities.

Families at home are scrambling to find whatever funds they can to finance the return of their family members, in the absence of government assistance, by selling land and pawning jewellery but as one mother pointed out, it was her daughter who had kept her alive by sending her salary home so how could she, an old and sick woman, raise the required amount? A young girl wept as she spoke of losing her father and being helpless to facilitate her sick mother’s return from the Middle East. One mother said her son’s visa would soon run out and he would be put in jail if he remained without a valid visa.

The embassies in the Middle East are short staffed due to lack of funds and many officers have returned. The few that are left often do not answer calls for help or they tell the women that they have been put on a list but after that there is no further communication, so they are simply waiting.

In Sri Lanka several organizations, including the Progressive Women’s Collective and the Liberation Movement, are highlighting the plight of the women and demanding that the government put in place an efficient system to bring them home immediately. At a demonstration outside the SLBFE earlier this month, relatives held placards calling on the government to repatriate their family members and demanding an end to profiteering from the pandemic.

Both here and abroad there are allegations of corruption and money making as officials and businesspeople seek to exploit the vulnerable in their hour of need despite the existence of a Kuwait Compensation Fund, an insurance scheme with the SLBFE and the billion-rupee Covid-19 fund, all of which could be used to finance air tickets, PCR tests and accommodation upon return.

“It’s become a big business,” according to Dr. Amarasuriya. “We don’t know the correct numbers of people brought back, how many are still waiting or how many have paid; there are gaps in the data.”

She pointed out that airlines were charging three times as much for a one way ticket while transport companies and hotels were taking advantage of the situation to earn quick profits.

In a letter to the SLBFE, the Progressive Women’s Collective suggested measures to remedy the situation:

  • Take steps to close the administrative gaps in the repatriation process by addressing the shortage of staff that are required to coordinate the repatriation process by providing legal support where necessary; by collecting accurate data of the migrant workers; and by facilitating necessary diplomatic interventions.
  • Disseminate information on flight schedules that are available for the repatriation of migrant workers through social media networks in each country and in Sri Lanka.
  • Organize the flight schedules in order to prioritize the repatriation of migrant workers to Sri Lanka in a transparent manner and duly provide information to their family members.
  • Maintain a separate quarantine process for migrant workers under the complete supervision of the government.
  • Take legal actions against corrupt business networks involved in the repatriation and quarantine process.
  • Allow migrant workers to self-quarantine at home under the supervision of local public health officials.
  • Establish a hotline in Sri Lanka where information on migrant workers can be obtained efficiently and facilitate accessing information from embassies.
  • Pay compensation to the families of migrant workers who died from Covid-19 while working overseas.

Below are excerpts from an interview with Dr. Harini Amarasuriya on the issue of the repatriation of migrant workers.