The latest issue of our sister paper Sunday Times carried a news item which quoted the Auditor General’s Department as saying that the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) was still holding on to a balance of more than Rs.3.2 billion from money remitted by the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) to pay Sri Lankans who were employed in Kuwait during that country’s invasion by Iraq in 1990.
The story further says, “the amount in US dollars at the prevailing exchange rate is more than US$20 mn. The payments are yet to be made because the bureau “had not implemented a formal methodology to pay compensation to the relevant workers,” says the 2015 Auditor General’s Report on the SLBFE. As a result, a balance of Rs.3,213,918,952 remains. Additionally, this has falsely been shown in accounts as a capital reserve when it should be termed a long-term liability.”
What a crime! The SLBFE is the State agency that has been assigned to look after the interests of the Sri Lankan migrant workers in other countries. If this is the way it safeguards the interests of those earning foreign exchange for the country, what is the purpose of further running such an institution?
There are two aspects being elucidated by this issue. One is the despicable lethargy prevailing in State institutions, especially when it comes to the problems of the ordinary people. Secondly, this is nothing other than callousness on the part of the public sector officials. The more than 100,000 Sri Lankans who had worked in Kuwait during the invasion of that country by Iraq had to undergo a hellish situation with some of them being killed, while some others being injured and almost everybody losing their earning and valuables worth hundreds of thousands of rupees. It had been revealed that eight Sri Lankans were killed and 32 injured due to the war from August 2, 1990 to March 2, 1991. The trauma they, especially the women and girls had undergone in a foreign country, sometimes without knowing the language of that country properly and without anybody to tell their harrowing tales, could not be imagined by others.
Finally, Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq was forced to compensate Kuwait and the UNCC was created in 1991 under a UN Security Council resolution to process claims and pay compensation for losses and damages suffered as a direct result of the invasion. The UNCC says it has concluded processing claims in 2005 and the total compensation awarded was US$ 52.4 billion to about 1.5 million successful claimants. Alas, this is 2017, twelve years have passed since, but the Sri Lankan bureaucracy has failed to make up its mind to pay the compensation to those who fell victims to a sudden cruel armed invasion while earning foreign exchange for the country.
The most cruel part of this saga is that the authorities seem to have changed their mind later not to pay the compensation to the victims, as a balance of Rs 3.2 billion of the compensation fund that is with the SLBFE has falsely been shown in accounts as a capital reserve, whereas it should be termed a long-term liability, according to the Auditor general’s report quoted by the Sunday Times.
Bureaucratic red tape and lethargy in State institutions has always been an obstacle in relief measures to the victims of disasters, apart from development activities. Seventeen months after the 2016 floods in the lower Kelani Valley areas, it was only on last Sunday that compensation for a fraction of victims for their material losses were paid at a function held at the Temple Trees. Home Affairs Minister Vajira Abeywardena said at this gathering, that it was after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s intervention that the payment of compensation was possible. Besides, newspapers revealed recently that victims of landslides that occurred in 2016 were still languishing in tents. This is something more than lethargy. It should be termed as heartlessness of the bureaucracy.