Over 35,000 Lankan migrant workers still remain stranded in Gulf countries

9 July 2020 08:39 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • Illegal migrant workers face difficulties in obtaining healthcare services 
  • Foreign Employment Bureau to launch support programme for returning migrant workers 
  • SL in process of drawing a three-year plan for foreign employment sector
  • SL receives around US $ 7bn in worker remittances per annum

By Nishel Fernando
Over 35,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers still remain stranded mainly in the Gulf countries, awaiting return to the country amid the job losses triggered by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, according to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB). 


Speaking to Mirror Business, SLFEB Deputy General Manager R.K.K.M.P. Randeniya said that around 9,000 migrant workers have been repatriated to the country since the COVID-19 outbreak. 


However, he noted that around 35,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers still remain stranded, in particular in the Gulf countries, waiting to return to Sri Lanka. 


He added that the number of migrant workers wanting to return to the country is getting higher with the contracts of some of these migrant workers in the Gulf countries are coming closer to expiration. 


However, according to some foreign employment agencies, there might be as much as 70,000 migrant workers waiting to be repatriated to Sri Lanka. 


There’s a significant presence of Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Gulf countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.


A foreign employment agent on the grounds of anonymity said repatriation of Sri Lankan migrant workers from countries such as Saudi Arabia still remains insignificant, due to various practical issues. 


“We have a bigger opportunity to repatriate workers compared to countries such as India and Bangladesh, who are still struggling to slow down the spread of COVID-19. We need a clear mechanism, including for performing PCR tests,” an official from the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) told Mirror Business. 


Referring to some of the recent media reports over the moves to charge fees from migrant workers for PCR tests, with the reopening of the Colombo international airport, the official stressed that the government must ensure that the returning migrant workers are exempted from such charges.


According to the estimates by foreign analysts, millions of job losses are expected in the Gulf countries, which would mostly fall on migrant labour. In Saudi Arabia alone, over one million job losses are projected for migrant workers. 


“So many are facing pay cuts and some are waiting to return with their contracts reaching expiry dates,” the ALFEA official said. 


Most Gulf countries have taken measures to encourage illegal migrants to go back to their home countries, saying they could or have become a burden to their 
healthcare system.  


For an example, in April, Kuwait offered a pardon plan for the illegal migrants in the country, encouraging them to depart. They were offered exemption from punishment and free home return flights. 


The ALFEA official noted that there’s a considerable illegal Sri Lankan migrant population, mainly due to the expiration of their visas.


“Some of them have finished their contract period but they continued to stay without renewing their visas and their contracts. They are unable to access to healthcare facilities even when they get sick, as they cannot produce documents to prove that they are staying legally. That’s the main issue that they are facing,” he noted.


Meanwhile, Randeniya revealed that the SLFEB is planning to launch a support for livelihood development programme for the returning migrant workers in August. 


An information survey is currently underway to indentify the returning migrant workers and to plan the programme for them. 


He noted the programme would be launched with the SLBFE and foreign funds to support the livelihoods of these returning migrant workers. 

The worker remittances in April plunged by 32.3 percent to US $ 375 million, from US $ 553.7 million in the same month in 2019. However, it rebounded to US $ 431.8 million in May, as travel restrictions in the Gulf countries were relaxed during the month.

 
Sri Lanka receives around US $ 7 billion in worker remittances per annum. The World Bank forecasts a 19 percent decline in worker remittances for Sri Lanka this year.


The ALFEA official said that the demand for foreign labour in the Gulf countries might recover in another four months, after new recruitments came to a grinding halt in March. 


“When the illegal migrant workers return to their home countries, there will be some demand for foreign labour,” he added. In addition to worker remittances, Sri Lanka also receives a service charge remittance from the recruitment agencies in the Gulf countries. The service charge remittance amounts to around US $ 3 billion per annum, according to the ALFEA.   Meanwhile, the SLFEB is in the process of drawing a three-year plan for the foreign employment sector, with stakeholder consultations, targeting a new set of countries. 


“We will be highlighting Sri Lanka being COVID-19-free and the preventive cautionary measures that we have taken. We will be promoting skilled, competent manpower as well as healthier behaviour patterns of Sri Lankan migrant workers,” Randeniya said.  He noted that the SLFEB plans to target countries such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Israel and several other new destinations, under this programme. 

 

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