12/17/2020, 16.48
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COVID-19: repatriated Sri Lankan migrants seen as infectious

by Melani Manel Perera

At least 45,900 Sri Lankans in the Middle East and the Gulf countries are waiting – without work, salary, or severance pay – to be repatriated. Back home, they are shunned, accused of spreading the coronavirus. In 2019, migrants’ remittances contributed US$ 6.7 billion or 8.03% of GDP to the Sri Lankan economy. Now Sri Lanka is becoming a country of immigration, especially from India and China.


Colombo (Asia News) – Tens of thousands of Sri Lankan migrant workers are waiting to return home following the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, which led many businesses to close down because of lockdowns.

About 11,268 Sri Lankan migrants have been repatriated from 14 countries, while another 45,900 are waiting to join them.

With host countries in trouble and Sri Lankan workers out of a job, Sri Lankan embassies have had to provide shelter and food, while the migrants wait to return to Sri Lanka.

Many of them have worked for years in the Middle East and the Gulf countries as servants, bricklayers, waiters; some have been in middle management.

For them, the most serious problem is that, after losing their job, they were not paid their last salary nor receive any severance pay. And Sri Lankan diplomatic representatives have not been able to settle this issue with host governments.

Forced to return empty-handed, migrants have had to pay for the return flight out of their own pocket.

In light of the situation, human rights and migrant organisations are calling on the Sri Lankan government to set up an "urgent justice mechanism" to reimburse migrants for unpaid wages and job loss. This request has gone unheeded so far.

As soon as they landed, many returning migrants began to look again for job opportunities abroad.

For those who have not been able to relocate abroad again, life at home has included facing the anger and contempt of fellow Sri Lankans who blame them for spreading COVID-19 in the country, a development fuelled my local media who accuse them of infecting society.

One case in point: a kindergarten teacher, a Colombo native, recently returned from a Gulf country. Although she followed all the quarantine directives of the Ministry of Health, she remains isolated and rejected by her neighbours.

Overall, 68 people have died from the pandemic in Sri Lanka.

Non-governmental organisations are pushing for the authorities to implement policies to protect the rights of migrants abroad and at home.

According to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), at least 1.2 million Sri Lankans are working in other countries. In 2019, their remittances injected US$ 6.7 billion into the Sri Lankan economy; that represents 8.03 per cent of the gross domestic product.

“The government should raise awareness about the need for social cohesion and coexistence in order to help integrate returning migrants’” said Francis Solomantine, a long-time migrant in Dubai. “At the same time, it should create partnerships with businesses to facilitate the reintegration of migrants into the economy.”

Promoting policies in favour of migrants and their human rights is important for the future for another reason. Sri Lanka is moving from the status of a post-war developing country, with migrants going abroad, to a country with a free-market economy that is importing migrant labour, from China and India, to work on national mega infrastructures like highways, ports, and airports.

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