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SRI LANKA: Rights Groups Blame Gov’t Apathy for Migrant Woes

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Nov 24 2009 (IPS) - Dozens of Sri Lankan migrant workers languishing under a flyover in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, claiming to be stranded, exemplify the crisis of migration that Sri Lankan authorities have faced over the years.

“There are no hard-and-fast solutions (to problems faced by migrant workers),” noted Hussain Bhaila, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Foreign Minister, who flew to Jeddah last week to look into this issue.

But he pointed out that the problem only confronts less than one percent of more than 1.6 million Sri Lankan workers abroad, based on 2008 figures from the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare. Over 55 percent of the migrants are women.

Last year, the Ministry received 9,664 complaints from migrant workers, the details of which were not disclosed on its website. But according to the National Policy on Migration—an International Labour Organization-led initiative involving government agencies, associations and non-governmental organisations supporting migrant workers, and employment agents—most of the complaints are over wage issues and sexual and physical harassments.

The National Policy document, which was approved by the government last year, enunciates the role of the state in dealing with migration and providing safety nets for workers.

More than 200,000 Sri Lankans find employment abroad every year, mostly in the Middle East, in mainly unskilled jobs like domestic and construction work.

Until their forays into foreign lands, many migrant women had never even worked apart from taking care of their families and had never set foot outside their villages. Coming from impoverished families across rural Sri Lanka, they dream of improving their lot, educating their children and building a house of their own.

Organisations representing migrant workers blame the state for much of the problems faced by Sri Lankans abroad. “There is no proper system in seeking jobs abroad. The women are just dumped at the [Sri Lankan] airport … and often stranded,” said David Soysa, director of the Colombo-based Migrant Workers Centre.

A Roman Catholic nun, who has worked for years advocating for migrant rights, said that in the course of her numerous visits abroad, she has seen Sri Lankan women stranded at airports waiting for their agents or sponsors.

“Often they go without a proper meal for days because the agent hasn’t turned up,” the nun, who declined to be named, told IPS. “The women are at a huge disadvantage because they don’t have money, are lost in an alien culture and have a serious language problem. They don’t enough know English to ask some basic questions.”

But Bhaila, who heads the consular division in the foreign ministry, which is tasked to help Sri Lankans stranded overseas, said there is a flip side to this crisis and it is unfair to pin the blame solely on the government. He said the 260 Sri Lankans living under the Jeddah flyover have overstayed their visits or left their original places of work even before their contracts could end.

“When you leave your workplace before your contract ends, the employer doesn’t release the exit permit that is essential to leave the country. When that happens, these migrants do other illegal jobs,” he said, adding that the Jeddah flyover is a favourite location among those seeking to be repatriated at the expense of the Saudi government, and this is what these Sri Lankans are seeking, he stressed.

Bhaila also said there are more than 4,000 Indians, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans waiting for state buses to take them to the deportation centre.

The Saudi government annually repatriates thousands of people who come for the annual Haj or religious pilgrimage and have overstayed their visas. Bhaila said they suspect that many Sri Lankans, who are unable to leave because of work contract issues, claim pilgrim status and stay under the bridge, thus entitling themselves to emergency exit papers, which they would not get if they had workplace issues.

Some 6,000 Sri Lankans have been repatriated by Saudi authorities in the past two years under this programme for overstaying pilgrims, which Sri Lankans have found to be a quicker and less complicated way to return home than wait for Sri Lankan missions to send them back.

To the government, international labour migration is a huge source of valuable foreign exchange, which, in 2008, accounted for more than 35 percent, or three billion U.S. dollars, of the country’s total foreign currency earnings. Migrant workers are also considered the country’s second best “export” after garments.

Lakshan Dias, chairperson of the Colombo-based South Asian Network for Refugees, IDPs (or internally displaced people) and Migrants (SANRIM), said state responsibility for the protection of workers abroad is the biggest problem confronting migrant labourers.

“Labour officers or counselors attached to Sri Lankan missions overseas with the specific task of looking after the welfare of workers are most often political appointees (relatives or friends of supporters of government officials),” he said. As such, he added, they do not have a clue about migrant issues. “They are not qualified and unable to tackle a crisis.”

Dias, a lawyer who worked for four years in Hong Kong with an NGO dedicated to the protection of migrant workers from all countries, said he is appalled at the way workers are treated at the Sri Lankan airport before they depart for employment abroad or on their return.

He said every migrant worker has to register with the state-owned Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment and pay an insurance fee. This goes into the range of services that the bureau is mandated to provide for migrant workers and their families, including repatriation of a worker in a crisis, and educational scholarships to children of migrant workers.

But migrant workers claim the state is not doing enough to address their plight. “They demand an insurance payment against our contract, but very little is being done with this money for the welfare of the workers,” an accountant, who recently got a job in Bahrain, told IPS on condition of anonymity.

SANRIM’S Dias cited the case of an American national who is in a Sri Lankan jail over a criminal offence. That he is regularly visited by the U.S. mission staff in Colombo is an example of how countries should look after their citizens overseas, he said. “Our missions are not concerned and sometimes don’t even know when people are in jail or in distress,” he complained.

The case of Sri Lankan Rizana Nafeek, a 17-year-old who went to Saudi Arabia on a false passport, being underage, and is facing the death penalty as a result of her conviction on charges of murder following the death of a five-month-old infant in her care, illustrates how Sri Lankan authorities drag their feet in responding to a crisis faced by Sri Lankan migrants, sources said.

Nafeek narrowly escaped the death sentence when the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights along with the Sri Lankan community in Saudi Arabia raised funds to appoint a lawyer a day before her scheduled beheading in July 2007 to appeal against the verdict. It was only then that Sri Lankan authorities took action.

Nafeek has spent five years in jail while her case is on appeal. Her defence counsel maintains that her ward’s death was accidental, citing her inexperience in looking after infants. The baby had choked to death while Nafeek was bottle-feeding milk to her.

Dias sees the need to form a trade union representing migrant workers. “We may not be able to organise strikes in other countries, but we can do some collective action and bring pressure on the authorities here and overseas,” he said.

He added that Sri Lankan migrant workers have set up welfare groups, but there is no organised effort among workers unlike migrants from countries like the Philippines.

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