Stranded abroad: The harrowing tale of Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East

The coming March 19 marks one year since the Sri Lankan government closed the country’s borders to contain the spread of Covid-19 in Sri Lanka. While border restrictions remain a common Covid-19 containment measure utilised by many countries across the world, Sri Lanka is one of the very few that closed its borders to its own citizens for an extended period. Despite the country’s borders now being partially reopened to citizens due to pressure from migrant workers and civil society activists, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) continues to impose stringent and expensive quarantine measures for returning citizens, making it almost impossible for some migrants, especially blue-collar migrant workers in the Middle East, to return. 

This is an unfortunate situation as Sri Lankan migrants in the Middle East are among Sri Lankan migrants most affected by the pandemic. By the end of December 2020, more than 3900 Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East had contracted Covid-19 while 89 had succumbed to the disease. In addition, a significant percentage of Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East have been laid off or are undergoing drastic pay cuts due to the economic downturn in their host countries. While by the end of 2020, 31,102 Sri Lankan migrant workers in the region were able to return, there is a significant number of Sri Lankans in the region still in need of urgent assistance to return home. However, due to the GoSL’s quarantine policy on returning citizens, these migrant workers are still stranded in the Middle East one year into the pandemic.

As a country with a large number of migrant workers in the volatile Middle Eastern region, Sri Lanka should have had better plans for repatriation in emergencies. While the Covid-19 pandemic is a unique situation, there had been instances in the past, such as the Gulf war of 1990 and the Lebanon war of 2006, which required the repatriation of thousands of Sri Lankans during a short span of time. However, the GoSL’s inefficient repatriation efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic indicate that Sri Lanka had failed to learn from these prior experiences.

How the crises unfolded for migrant workers

On March 19, 2020, the GoSL, akin to many other governments across the world, closed the country’s airports for all arrivals to combat the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. While this action was deemed necessary at the time to control the spread of the virus within Sri Lanka and to prevent overburdening the country’s healthcare system, it prevented overseas Sri Lankans, the majority of whom are migrant workers in the Middle East, from returning home.

Soon after the airport closure, the Sri Lankan government arranged several repatriation flights to bring the stranded Sri Lankans home. However, the priority was given to students, those on short visits, pilgrimages and government training abroad. The repatriation of migrant workers from the Middle East commenced only in May 2020. However, even after this long delay in commencing the repatriation of migrant workers from the Middle East, the process was inefficient and disorganised and seemed to have been done half-heartedly. For instance, the 466 Sri Lankan irregular migrants who had received amnesty from Kuwait (1) were allowed to return in May 2020 only after the Government of Kuwait forced GoSL to approve their transfer, and the cost of the repatriation flights was borne by Kuwait. Moreover, whenever new clusters of Covid-19 emerged in Sri Lanka, such as the Kandakadu cluster in July 2020 and the Minuwangoda cluster in October 2020, the Government of Sri Lanka temporarily halted or limited the repatriation of migrant workers, especially those from the Middle East, citing inadequate quarantine capacity as the reason. 

While at the onset, the intention of allowing returnees to quarantine at hotels was to increase the quarantine capacity of the country, this soon turned into a highly profitable venture that strips returning migrant workers of their meagre savings. At present, hotels which provide quarantine facilities are semi-luxury to luxury hotels that charge a minimum of LKR 105,000 for the fortnight stay. This is an extremely high amount for most blue-collar migrant workers in the Middle East as even at the best of times. However, with job losses, pay cuts, and delays in salary payments caused by the pandemic, most low-income migrants in the region currently struggle to meet their ends meet. 

Part of the problem was that at the beginning, the GoSL only allowed returnees to quarantine at government-run quarantine facilities , which created capacity constraints. However, following the examples of other countries, from August 2020, the GoSL allowed migrants to quarantine at hotels at a fee. As the number of Covid-19 cases identified within Sri Lanka began to rise after the discovery of the Minuwangoda cluster in October 2020, the government quarantine facilities were solely dedicated to quarantining those in the country, making hotel quarantine the only viable option for returning migrants during the last quarter of 2020.

Issues with Sri Lanka’s quarantine policy

While in recent months, the government has changed its mandatory hotel quarantine policy giving the option for returnees to choose to quarantine at a government-run facility for free or at a designated hotel for a fee, migrant workers feel they do not have an option as the waiting list for government-run facilities is long. As a result, the only feasible option for those who wish to return is to bear the cost of hotel quarantine. 

Migrant workers who need immediate repatriation from the Middle East are unemployed or faced with severe economic issues. Some of them do not even have legal status in their countries as their visas have expired and are in precarious positions both legally and financially. For instance, Kamal (not his real name), a taxi driver in Doha, Qatar, whose visa expired in May 2020, stated that he does various part-time jobs to pay the penalty for overstaying his visa in Qatar and for quarantining at a hotel in Sri Lanka. He is worried that he will be arrested for working without a visa. However, he says that he has no other option than to work under blurry legal situations to earn money to return to Sri Lanka. 

As the repatriation efforts continue to be delayed, the financial difficulties of these migrant workers tend to exacerbate. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared in January 2021 that it had disbursed LKR 82 million to Sri Lankan overseas missions in the region to provide basic rations, medicines and safety equipment to affected migrant workers, complaints have been raised by stranded migrants that the assistance they receive from the Sri Lankan embassies in their host countries to be extremely insufficient. For instance, Susith, a construction worker who is currently unemployed, stated that he had not received any support despite his numerous visits to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Qatar.  He stated, “[the staff at the embassy] don’t even talk to us or ask us how we are doing.I have not received any support from them. If they at least called us and asked how we are doing, that would have been something”. 

The harrowing conditions that Sri Lankan migrant workers undergo in their host countries make them susceptible to various scams that further endanger them. For instance, Farooq, a mechanic in Doha, said that he lost his entire end-of-contract gratuity in 2020 to a fraud who promised that he would arrange his flight tickets and quarantine package. On the other hand, some migrant workers believe that bribing officers who work at the Sri Lankan overseas missions would help them to go back to Sri Lanka soon. This shows that the exorbitant fees charged for the hotel quarantine have given rise to various fraudulent schemes that prey on the vulnerabilities of migrant workers.

While the GoSL has imposed stringent quarantine rules for migrant workers who wish to return home, in January 2021, it opened the country’s borders to tourists allowing them to travel to specified locations in the country without having to undergo mandatory quarantine. Migrant workers who have been stranded in the Middle East for almost a year question why the government allows foreigners quarantine-free entry while forcing the citizens to undergo paid quarantine.

On 7 March 2021, the Head of the National Operations Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak in Sri Lanka stated that the government is considering easing quarantine for those who have received both doses of a GoSL-approved Covid-19 vaccine; this policy is yet to materialise. However, even if the government moves ahead with this promise, it is doubtful whether those in dire economic situations will immediately benefit from this policy. Firstly, it will take months for some migrant workers to be eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine in their host countries as the Covid-19 vaccines are rolled out on a priority basis in most Middle Eastern countries. Secondly, migrants who have overstayed their visa in their host countries might be reluctant to register for the vaccine fearing penalties.  Therefore, irrespective of the government’s decision to allow vaccinated Sri Lankans to return to Sri Lanka without undergoing mandatory quarantine, immediate steps must be taken to address the multitude of issues faced by migrant workers.

Recommendations

The Sri Lankan government’s policy of sending all returning migrants for mandatory quarantine at designated centres was appropriate in the early months of the pandemic when Sri Lanka had zero to extremely low numbers of domestically transmitted Covid-19 cases. However, this policy is no longer practical as the country now reports hundreds of domestically transmitted cases daily. Moreover, in the coming months, an increasing number of Sri Lankans abroad would receive the Covid-19 vaccine in their host countries. Therefore, the best way forward at present is to allow all returnees with negative PCR tests to quarantine at home.

If the country’s health authorities consider allowing returnees to quarantine at home to be a risk, the government should increase the number of government-run free quarantine centres. This would enable all returnees seeking free quarantine facilities to quarantine at a government quarantine centre. In addition, for those who wish to quarantine at hotels, an online platform should be developed to choose the hotel of their choice. Currently, returnees do not have this option. In fact, they have no clue where they would be sent until they arrive in Sri Lanka. Therefore, creating an online portal with a wide range of hotels will provide migrants with the freedom to choose hotel packages according to their budget and other personal needs. The government can oversee this process. However, it must be automated, eliminating the need for returnees to get permission from the Sri Lankan mission in their host countries and enabling them to pay directly to the hotels.

End Notes

  1. From 1 to 30 April 2020, the Kuwaiti government declared an amnesty for irregular migrant workers in Kuwait who do not have any ban on departure to leave the country without paying any penalties. Migrants who had overstayed their visas or were otherwise undocumented in Kuwait were allowed to apply for amnesty. The amnesty also allows these irregular migrants the possibility to return to Kuwait in the future with the necessary documents.

References

Alphonsus, M. (2020, October 15). Migrant Workers Can Be Repatriated, Sri Lankan Govt. Has Abandoned Them At Their Hour Of Greatest Need. Colombo Telegrapgh. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/migrant-workers-can-be-repatriated-sri-lankan-govt-has-abandoned-them-at-their-hour-of-greatest-need/

Aryasinha, R. (2020, June 27). The Role of Foreign Employment in the Economic Revival of Sri Lanka; Challenges and Opportunities. 33rd ANNUAL CONFERENCE OF THE ORGANISATION OF PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS (OPA), Digital conference. https://www.un.int/srilanka/sites/www.un.int/files/Sri%20Lanka/2020/July/01/speech-_sfr.pdf

Attanayake, C. (2020). Repatriating Migrants during COVID-19: Challenges for the Sri Lankan Government (ISAS Brief, pp. 1–2) [Working Paper]. https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/papers/repatriating-migrants-during-covid-19-challenges-for-the-sri-lankan-government/

Ranasinghe, I. (2021, January 8). 89 Sri Lankans in the Middle East have died of COVID-19: Labour Minister. EconomyNext. https://economynext.com/89-sri-lankans-in-the-Middle East-have-died-of-covid-19-labour-minister-77688/

Razick, S. (2020, June 29). The Long Road Home: The Story Of Sri Lankan Migrant Workers In Saudi Arabia. Roar Media. https://roar.media/english/life/in-the-know/long-road-home-story-srilankan-migrant-workers-in-saudi-arabia

Weeraratna, B. (2020). Return and Reintegration without Assimilation: South Asian Migrant Workers in the Gulf during COVID-19 (Working Paper No. 327; ISAS Brief). Institute of South Asian Studies. https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/327.pdf

About the author

Anoji Ekanayake is a research professional with research interests in labour migration, transnational communities, displacement and gender. She holds a BA with First Class Honours in Economics, English and Management from the University of Peradeniya and a Masters in Development Studies from the University of Colombo. Her work on Gulf migrants has appeared in various international outlets such as Migration and Development (Routledge). She is currently working at the the GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub of the London School of Economics (LSE).

Publication date: 12 March 2021

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