Workers claim that fees for travel are unaffordable and have to be paid in US dollars. Therefore, most workers who wish to return home are effectively trapped
- Some families are selling their houses or lands, or going into debt, to be able to repatriate their relatives from Lebanon
- Organised gangs earn money by sending job seekers to Middle Eastern countries especially Dubai on visit visas
- None of the workers in Lebanon actually received any funds from the OWWF or any other source , nor any information about how exactly these funds can be claimed
By Piyumi Fonseka
@Piyumi_Fonseka on Twitter
Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, thousands of Sri Lankan migrant workers are left with no job, no money and no way out. Unable to return home because of the country’s refusal to accept them soon enough, they have been confined to unsanitary dormitories without access to basic requirements. As of today, the official data show that more than 70 Sri Lankan migrant workers have died from COVID.
The majority were low-skilled migrant workers in Middle Eastern countries from where 74 deaths have been reported including 31 from Saudi Arabia. Foreign Affairs Ministry (FAM), complying with international COVID-19 related health and protection standards had imposed several conditions for the family members who had requested the bodies of their loved ones, succumbed to the virus, to be repatriated.
Accordingly, some of the bodies were brought back to Sri Lanka. Yet, as per the main condition, the bodies were directly transported to the nearest crematorium where only the closest family members were allowed in.
Despite the repatriation process of Sri Lankans stranded abroad since the pandemic, is currently on halt, the FAM said 44,033 Sri Lankans from 125 countries have so far been repatriated and 17,600 of them were from Middle Eastern countries.
However, it further said 56,000 more Sri Lankans are still to be repatriated.
‘We are left here to die’ – Sri Lankans in Jordan
A group of Sri Lankan migrant workers stranded in Jordan took to social media recently to voice their grievances. One video shows a shirtless man on the floor struggling to breathe. Several men appear at the end of the video, claiming that the man had since died. When inquired from the Sri Lankan mission in Jordan, it was found that the man had COVID-19 and he died of heart failure.
The friends and fellow Sri Lankans, appearing in the video posted on Facebook appealed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to bring them back to motherland. They asked the President as to who would take responsibility for the untimely and unfortunate death of the migrant worker.
One of the workers said “Our friend was suffering from COVID-19 for fourteen days. There was no one to give him at least a Paracetamol. He was left to die like a dog with no treatment and no care. The ambulance came two hours later. There are so many more suffering from COVID. Apart from them, there are many workers who have not undergone PCR tests. We all live in the same buildings. Please President, we are begging you to do something for us without letting us die here. ”
‘Fraudulent job agents tricked us’ – Sri Lankans in Dubai
A group of Sri Lankan migrant workers stranded in a public park in Dubai made headlines several weeks ago. The workers who had lost jobs and accommodation had been staying in the park until the UAE Government or Sri Lankan officials in Dubai offered help. Ultimately a Sri Lankan Welfare Mission Sahana, based in Dubai provided temporary accommodation for the stranded Sri Lankans and all of them are currently awaiting a repatriation flight.
"The group of Sri Lankans that have taken refuge at the Al Hudaiba Park have their visit and residential visas expired. Residents of the area, Sri Lankan Welfare Mission Sahana, and the Sri Lankan missions have come forward to support the stranded residents with food, water and face masks"
According to Dubai media, the group of Sri Lankans that have taken refuge at the Al Hudaiba Park have their visit and residential visas expired. Residents of the area, Sri Lankan Welfare Mission Sahana, and the Sri Lankan missions have come forward to support the stranded residents with food, water and face masks. One of the job-seekers, interviewed by Khaleej Times has said he had been stranded in the country since December last year. The worker was hoping to leave by April-May, but the lock down happened, making him unable to go back. He had said many of those stranded were lured to the UAE by fraud job recruiters. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Keerthi Muththukumarana, Deputy General Manager (Legal) Sri Lanka’s Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) said Sri Lankans who have become victims of organised foreign job rackets are the most vulnerable group of people during the pandemic. Such organised gangs earn money by sending job seekers to Middle Eastern countries especially Dubai on visit visas.
‘Bad to worse’ – Sri Lankans in Lebanon
Many international organisations have come forward to raise their voices for the helpless migrant workers and level pressure on Sri Lankan government to immediately take action. The following letter was sent by the Anti-Racism Movement and 60 organisations and collectives in Lebanon and Sri Lanka to urge the Sri Lankan Government to fund the evaluation of all Sri Lankan workers stranded in Lebanon under a worsening economic crisis. The letter was addressed to the President of Sri Lanka, Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Relations and many other dignitaries.
Lebanon has been experiencing a series of relentless shocks since September 2019. The local currency lost 81% of its value due primarily to a shortage of US dollar reserves. The spread of COVID-19 in March 2020 and the following lockdown measures induced a drastic reduction in GDP and increase in prices. All of this was further compounded by one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in the world which hit the Beirut port in August. The port was the country’s main hub for shipping and trade. This triple crisis pushed more than half the population into poverty and reduced the size of the middle class by 30%.
As a result, the majority of the population can no longer afford to pay for domestic work, which is the primary occupation of Sri Lankans in Lebanon. There are around 25,000 Sri Lankans in Lebanon, of which around 7,000 are undocumented. The most commonly cited challenge for these workers is the withholding of their wages, the depletion of their savings and their inability to afford rent and food as most of them have been unemployed or underemployed for a year.
Workers being hammered by ongoing economic crisis
Those who still have jobs have seen their salaries decline considerably and paid in Lebanese pounds (LBP) instead of US dollars (USD). Given their inability to buy dollars at the current exchange rate, many shared concerns that the effects of the crisis in Lebanon is extending to their families abroad. To transfer money, Sri Lankans must stand in line, sometimes overnight, to register their name on a long waiting list. When called, they have to report to the Commercial Bank of Sri Lanka where they can exchange their Lebanese pounds to US dollars at the rate of 5,000 LBP for $1 USD, a drastic jump of 233% from the pre-crisis rate of 1,500 LBP for $1 USD. Though the decline in remittances is globally evident, Lebanon’s remittance outflows have reached an all-time low.
"Our friend was suffering from COVID-19 for fourteen days. There was no one to give him at least a Paracetamol. He was left to die like a dog with no treatment and no care"
Sri Lankan workers have long benefited Lebanon and Sri Lanka alike. In Lebanon, they provided affordable and undervalued labour which fulfilled the care needs of Lebanese households and manual labour needs of Lebanese companies. The remittances they sent also effectively contributed to the economic development and growth of Sri Lanka.
In this crisis situation, both countries have a humanitarian duty to give back to these workers by eliminating all the barriers for their return to their home country. The embassy of Sri Lanka in Lebanon is uniquely positioned to mediate this discussion between the two governments and reach a fair arrangement that recognises these workers’ immense contributions.
Families selling their houses or lands to repatriate their stranded relatives
We commend the initiative taken by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Relations to systematically register and repatriate Overseas Sri Lankans, as well as the decision to prioritise the repatriation of Sri Lankans from the Middle East. We also commend the Sri Lankan embassy in Lebanon for responding to the crisis and organising repatriation flights despite the numerous constraints imposed by COVID-19 measures. The embassy successfully repatriated around 700 workers on 3 flights in June, August and September 2020.
However, Sri Lankan workers reported that the fees for travel are unaffordable and have to be paid in US dollars. This means that most workers who wish to return home are effectively trapped in Lebanon. The travel package, which includes the plane ticket, two PCR tests and a 14-day mandatory quarantine, costs $1,200 USD per person. This fee also applies to babies and children, placing an incredible burden on families. Unable to secure US dollars in Lebanon, workers send members of their families to pay on their behalf at offices that were set up for this purpose in Sri Lanka. Some families are selling their house or land, or going into debt, to be able to repatriate their relatives from Lebanon.
Undocumented workers have no relief whatsoever
In addition, workers in irregular status are required to pay a penalty fee of 300,000 LBP to the Lebanese General Security (Immigration office) for overstaying their visa. The Lebanese civil society is sparing no effort to push for a full exemption of undocumented workers from penalty fees in this state of emergency. However, the Lebanese General Security has only been responsive when exemptions were directly requested by the embassies representing the migrant workers in Lebanon. Though the Sri Lankan embassy requested and was granted an exemption for 40 undocumented workers in June, it has not submitted a request for exemption for any other undocumented workers since then.
None of the workers actually received any funds from Overseas Workers’ Welfare Fund
Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) decided in April 2020 to make resources from the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Fund (OWWF) available to all Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East. However, none of the workers in Lebanon actually received any funds from the OWWF or any other source, nor any information about how exactly these funds can be claimed. In fact, they reported that they paid for insurance twice, once in Sri Lanka and once in Lebanon, and yet have never benefited from either insurance scheme.
Immediate action is required
Sri Lankan citizens in Lebanon are in a state of emergency. Your diligence in ensuring the repatriation of overseas Sri Lankans needs to take this state of emergency into account and respond adequately. This means that the government needs to step up and fully fund the evacuation of its citizens from Lebanon as their livelihoods and safety are under direct threat.
This can be done through the implementation of the following measures:
01 Allocate an adequate budget from the government to cover the entire cost of repatriation of Sri Lankans who wish to leave Lebanon;
02 Send an official request to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to assist the government with this process, providing some of the tickets and organising the proper reintegration of workers in Sri Lanka, through psycho-social support, cash assistance and training for reintegrating the labour market;
03 Launch an emergency fundraiser to complement the budget provided by the government and the IOM and ensure that all workers who wish to leave Lebanon are able to do so.
4Establish an efficient and effective justice mechanism to help repatriated workers retrieve their unpaid wages before or after repatriation to Sri Lanka, in coordination with the Lebanese authorities.
Call on the Sri Lankan embassy in Lebanon to:
01 Ensure that workers who wish to travel have access to reliable information about the repatriation process and requirements.
02 Send an official request to the Lebanese General Security asking them to waive the overstay penalty fees for undocumented workers, as was successfully done by the embassy for 40 undocumented workers who were repatriated in June 2020.
03 Send an official request to the Ministry of Public Health to reduce the cost of PCR tests for Sri Lankan workers who wish to leave.