omorrow is International Migrants’ Day and the United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon in a message to mark the event says the world needs to reaffirm its commitment to shape diverse and open societies that provide opportunities and lives of dignity for migrants.
According to the UN Chief, international migration needs to be seen as a powerful tool for reducing poverty and enhancing opportunity. That is why there are now some 232 million international migrants bringing consistent benefits to countries of destination and origin through their essential labour and remittances. Yet, this important population remains largely invisible and unheard in society. Too many live and work in the worst conditions with the least access to basic services and fundamental rights, making them disproportionately vulnerable to extortion, violence, discrimination and marginalization.
These words of wisdom are of particular significance to Sri Lanka which has about 1.5 million migrant workers—mainly mothers, women and girls—working in Middle Eastern countries where conditions are often like slave labour if not worse with some maids being forced to work up to 14 hours a day. At present much concern is being expressed about a Sri Lankan housemaid who had been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery which she has reported to have confessed to.
It is a disgrace that Sri Lanka, with thousands of years of a rich culture and civilization, is today depending on these migrant workers or housemaid slaves as the country’s biggest source of foreign exchange. Latest figures indicate that these mothers, girls and other workers remit as much as 7 billion US dollars in foreign exchange annually far more than any and all other exports.
The late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Nayaka Thera who gave a strong moral leadership to the common Opposition and the selection of a common candidate for the people’s silent revolution that took place on January 8 this year, was among those who called for a gradual ban on the export of Sri Lankan mothers and girls, especially to Middle East countries. Though the Foreign Employment Ministry and the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau say they provide adequate training and protection to migrant workers, many of them are not properly trained and do not have a proper awareness of the strict laws in some of those countries such as Saudi Arabia.
The struggle below the poverty line is one of the reasons why hundreds of thousands of mothers, women and girls take a big risk in going overseas for virtual slave jobs, because they have no other way of meeting the basic needs of their families here. Often the consequences are disastrous. While the maids are in many cases physically abused and in some cases sexually abused, the consequences in the families they leave behind here are also tragic. Many are the cases where the young girls left behind here and forced to look after their fathers have become victims of sexual abuse sometimes even by their own fathers. As a result of all these, hundreds of village families are known to be breaking up in a social disaster, and the damage caused is much more than seven billion US dollars annually.
Last week the new National Unity Government outlined a comprehensive plan to restructure Sri Lanka’s economy and provide up to one million productive jobs through setting up of some 25,000 Village Development Councils comprising a cluster of villages. We hope through this and other structural measures to alleviate poverty and bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth, Sri Lanka would in the next few years be able to stop export of our mothers, women and girls for slave labour or something worse. Saving our mothers would also mean saving Mother Lanka.