The G20 logo is projected at the historical site of al-Tarif ion the outskirts of Saudi capital Riyadh on Nov. 20. Many Sri Lankan migrant workers are stranded in the Middle East. (Photo: AFP)
"I beg the government to arrange more flights to Sri Lanka before we die here. We are very helpless," said M.I. Sewvandhi, a 45-year-old mother of two from Kochchikade.
She is among hundreds of migrant workers stranded in the Middle East amid the Covid-19 pandemic after losing her job four months ago.
Like Sewvandhi, many migrant workers have appeared in videos on social media asking the Sri Lankan government to bring them home as soon as possible.
They have been waiting to return since April. Gulf countries are the most popular destination for female migrant workers from Sri Lanka among the 200,000 who seek work abroad every year.
"Many workers have lost their salaries due to the closure of companies, others have received pay cuts and many have lost overtime work," said Sewvandhi.
Some workers who lost their jobs stay in accommodation provided by their employees, others receive help from fellow Sri Lankan workers. But with the gradual increase in the number of coronavirus infections, more people face difficulties.
Many commenters on social media said that when they hear such stories, tears come to their eyes.
"We see their suffering and our country gets foreign exchange because of their hard labor," said one netizen.
Another comment said the government has not introduced a specific program for workers whose visas have expired and who have lost their jobs.
With a second wave of infections in Sri Lanka, the government temporarily suspended the travel of migrant workers. The government has started to bring back migrant workers according to the space available in quarantine centers.
About 90 Sri Lankan migrants have died abroad from coronavirus. The majority are low-skilled workers in the Middle East.
The country receives up to US$7 billion in remittances from migrant workers, especially those who work in the Middle East. Most are women employed as domestic workers and caregivers.
The government has repeatedly stated that it will do everything possible to support Sri Lankan migrant workers.
The foreign ministry has urged migrant workers to be wary of individuals who demand payment to facilitate their return to Sri Lanka.
Army commander Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, head of the National Operations Center for Prevention of Covid-19 Outbreak, said priority has been given to repatriating Sri Lankans stranded in the Middle East.
Jude Muthuhetti, a rights activist, said that the most helpless are innocent women who have gone to the Middle East to earn a living for their children.
Muthuhetti said that diplomatic interventions on behalf of workers stranded in Middle East countries to at least get them hospitalized and treated as soon as possible are very important.
Opposition lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake said the request of those citizens for repatriation is humane and just. "A formal arrangement should be made to bring these migrant workers back to Sri Lanka," said Dissanayake.
A Catholic priest who works with female migrant workers said Sri Lankan workers, known as the “country’s heroes” during the last election, are now in a desperate situation in the face of the coronavirus crisis.
"The workers in those countries say that they have lost their jobs and have no place to stay and no food," said the priest, who wished to remain anonymous.
Caritas Sri Lanka, the social arm of the Church, is taking care of Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East and providing assistance to returnees and families of migrants.
Sewvandhi, stranded in the Gulf, said many Covid patients are dying in the area where she is staying.
"We are not allowed to go out. Unlike in Sri Lanka, there is no strict program to find and treat coronavirus infections here for migrants. It is sad to see people die,” she said.