Ever since COVID-19 spread in tentacles around the world, many Sri Lankans working and studying overseas have been pleading to return home. Amongst this group were also Sri Lankans who were visiting family, touring the world, and those on various government sponsored training programmes.
And some were fortunate; they were repatriated early enough and escaped being infected.
However, a large number of Sri Lankans are still stranded overseas, particularly in the Middle East. In the last count, at least 1700 migrant workers had caught the virus, according to reports from the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE). That is more than double the number of patients in Sri Lanka; the Epidemiology Unit of the Health Department reported 678 domestic patients today, July 21. The SLBFE also reported that there have been least 40 COVID-19 related deaths amongst migrant workers; all from the Middle East.
Since early March videos have been circulating of Sri Lankans flocking to our overseas missions with the hope of being repatriated. However, foreign ministry officials pointed out at that time, that repatriation overnight was not possible owing to various challenges such as some of the workers not having their travel documents with them; those are workers who had changed employers, leaving their documents at the original workplace. Others were those whose contracts had not been renewed, or who were terminated largely due to the economic situation brought on by COVID-19. For those employed in Kuwait for instance it was as though they were living on borrowed time; the Kuwaiti government had, declared that all undocumented workers should leave by end of April, on which the government of Sri Lanka obtained an extension until the end of May. The Kuwaiti government not only paid for the return flights of these migrant workers, they were also given food and shelter, albeit in camps.
Sri Lankans living overseas, both students and migrant workers have taken social media to talk about their situations and to appeal to the authorities to hasten their repatriation. Some were pleading and emotional, while others were critical of the government and foreign ministry officials over the delay in bringing them back. In Sri Lanka, parents of students studying overseas were pressuring the government to bring their children home.
There were at least 40,000 persons registered to return to Sri Lanka, Admiral (Prof) Jayanath Colombage, Additonal Secretary to the President on Foreign Relations told Counterpoint, adding that of those, 16, 456, living in 74 countries had been brought back. While 3324 of them were students, some of the others were those who had travelled abroad on temporary visas for various reasons, from visiting family, on pilgrimage and on training. This was the second category to be repatriated the Admiral explained, with the students being the first. To Counterpoint’s question why migrant workers had not fallen within the first two categories, the Admiral explained that apart from representations from parents to the President, Prime Minister and the Cabinet, it was also considered that students were the most vulnerable of the whole lot. “Not only were their universities closed, but their hostels were closed too. Some may have had temporary work to support themselves, but most had no fixed income, so we believed the children were the most vulnerable.’ The first lot of students to be repatriated were the 34 studying in Wuhan, China which was the epicentre of the Corona virus, he added.
Many migrant workers, mostly those who fell into the undocumented category ended up in camps while waiting to be brought back to Sri Lanka. Given that a fair number of them became COVID-19 positive, while waiting to be repatriated, should the government have brought them back first? “That is a hypothetical question”, the Admiral countered, pointing out that the government negotiated the repatriation under challenging circumstances. “Not only is our airspace closed, it is the same in other countries, and some have even closed their airports. We had to obtain special permission to operate our flights to bring back the Sri Lankans.’ The first lot of migrant workers to be brought back were from Italy (1328) and South Korea (429), and there were about 35 persons in that group who were infected. “It is our responsibility to ensure that migrant workers do not catch the virus from society, or that they are the source of infection,’ he said, pointing out that the government cannot bring all of the workers in one go, and that it had to be done in a staggered manner. “ One could argue over why the children were the first priority, but they were in the most vulnerable situation. As well they could be here and access their studies on line, so that was the correct decision.’
The Admiral pointed out that though priority was given to the students and others, the government also began repatriation of migrant workers, especially those in the Middle East. The Maldives also posed a problem, he said, where migrant workers, especially those employed in Male itself faced job losses when tourism was affected. Those in the resort islands, even though they too had lost their jobs, explained the Admiral, were given accommodation and food by their employers, but that was not the case for those in Male itself. According to the Admiral, 2689 workers from India, 2273 from the Maldives, 1245 from the United Arab Emirates, 850 from Qatar, 465 from Kuwait, 291 from Oman, 301 from Bahrain, 171 from Lebanon and 273 from Saudi Arabia have been brought back so far.
The government also has to deal with several challenging situations such as limited space in quarantine centres, limits regarding the number of PCR tests that are done, from 10 per day at the start to a 100 per day, and now 2500 per day. “We cannot dedicate all of the testing to the expatriate community,’ he stated, adding’ “let’s take the Kandakadu situation,that came out of the blue,” therefore the government has to be prepared for such situations. “So health authorities said we could limit the number of testing for expatriates to 300 a day, and we arranged to bring down the people accordingly.’ He added that having enough quarantine centres as well as the treatment centres, for those infected were other issues that had to be dealt with. When all of this started, there was only the Infectious Diseases Hospital, but now there are around 12 treatment centres, he said.
While no one was tested prior to boarding a flight, at the early stage of the pandemic, even today, some countries do not test those who are about to travel, as those countries believe that the PCR’s must be used to test their own countrymen. However, the government has negotiated with some of the countries considered ‘high risk’ to conduct the tests prior to travelling, the Admiral stated, adding however, that even those who showed negative at the time, would be positive when they get here, because the virus may not have shown up at the time of testing abroad. Expatriates are required to get the testing done 72 hours prior to boarding. ‘In the event they test positive, they are treated by the host country as per international travel conventions’ the Admiral explained, adding that Sri Lanka had also treated 60 such foreigners.
The issue we face is that about 40% of migrant workers are ‘illegals.’ This means, that though they went through legal means, either by switching employment or similar reasons, they no longer have a legal status in the host country. When such persons get the corona virus, they cannot get treatment from the host country, and our foreign ministry and the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) have stepped in to help, the Admiral said.
Mangala Randeniya, a Deputy General Manager and the media spokesman at the SLBFE confirmed that the Bureau along with the Foreign Ministry has been supporting migrant workers who are stranded overseas owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are at least 30,000 more waiting to return, he told Counterpoint, adding that around 15,000 have been assisted so far, with food, accommodation and medicine. There are other groups, such as charitable organisations also helping out, he said. A 2019 insurance agreement which allows up to Rs. 500,000 compensation in the event of a death or a disability of a migrant worker is also valid for COVID-19 related deaths. As well, families are paid Rs. 40,000 for alms giving’s or related funeral expenses, Mr. Randeniya said. The SLBFE is liaising with the Quarantine Centres, so migrant workers can be brought back according to the number of spaces that open up, he added.
According to statistics, around 1.8 million Sri Lankans are employed overseas and they had remitted US$ 6.7 billion to the country in 2019. The largest concentration of migrant workers is in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, in a policy brief, the Women and Media Collective (WMC) which handles migrant worker issues through its membership in the Action Network for Migrant Workers (ACTFORM) states that “Undocumented or unregistered migrant workers have become one of the most at-risk groups,” adding that “Reports on the conditions of women who are pregnant in Gulf countries have revealed the extreme conditions of vulnerability they face. “ While acknowledging the interventions carried out by the government, WMC has presented ten recommendations to deal with the situation.
- Ensure that the bilateral agreements entered into with each country are honoured with the protection of the contractual obligations of the employer to employees.
- Enhance the measures that are being used to identify Sri Lankan migrant workers who are at risk of losing their jobs or have already lost their jobs and account for all steps taken to redress these grievances.
- Protect the human rights and self-respect of vulnerable migrant workers as well as of those migrant workers who request repatriation due to lack of income, access to adequate healthcare and violation of employment contracts.
- Engage in constructive discussion with countries of employment to ensure healthcare and social protection coverage for all Sri Lankans employees.
- Engage in constructive dialog with countries of employment to mitigate any possibilities of incidents of trafficking, particularly among those who are currently without valid visas.
- Formulate effective measures to establish special mechanisms within Ministries such as Labour, Social Welfare, Economic Affairs, Women’s Affairs, Agriculture, Small Industries to formulate programmes for the socio-economic reintegration of migrant workers who, having returned to the country due to the pandemic do not wish to or are unable to return to employment overseas.
- Put in place a programme to expedite the provision of debt relief to migrant workers who have obtained loans from banks in Sri Lanka prior to or while being employed abroad.
- Develop support programmes for dependent families of migrant workers in Sri Lanka who are facing financial hardship due to termination of employment or long delays in remittances of family members overseas. These programmes could be to initiate to delay or cancel payment of financial burdens such as rent for housing or loans for self-employment enterprises of these families.
- Intervene to initiate a constructive social dialogue through the media to prevent the stigmatization and marginalization of migrant workers and their family members who have completed mandatory quarantine procedures.
- Actively engage with countries of destination to offer a period of amnesty for regularisation of visas for Sri Lankan migrant workers who currently do not have legal documentation.
If social media posts by Sri Lanka’s migrant workers is anything to go by, it is clear they are angry. They were amongst the ‘Rata Wiruwa’s’ who worked hard to install Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President. Now they feel betrayed and accuse the government of neglecting them.
Thought the government too seems to have done its part to repatriate our migrant workers, a group that contributes billions to our treasury, will the government be able to repair the image it has lost amongst this community, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak?