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Stranded Sri Lankan migrant workers plead to return home

Thousands of workers are anxiously waiting to be repatriated amid job losses, coronavirus risks and pay cuts

Stranded Sri Lankan migrant workers plead to return home

Three-wheeler taxi drivers wait for passengers along a road in Colombo on May 26 as authorities eased the 24-hour curfew as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 27, 2020 09:36 AM GMT

Updated: May 28, 2020 01:44 AM GMT

Nuwan Chinthaka has made several phone calls to the Sri Lankan embassy but officials have not responded to his pleas.

Chinthaka, who has worked in one of the Gulf countries for more than four years, said they are so helpless. "Please get us back to our motherland," he said in a message.

He fears that if he names the embassy and the officers there, they will take revenge on him and his friends.

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"At this critical juncture, migrant workers only have the embassy and we have nothing left to do here. We are ready to go to quarantine centers for months in Sri Lanka. We look at the increasing number of Covid-19 patients here every day and the days are numbered until the day of our death," said the father of two from Ja-ela.

Sri Lanka’s government says it has to restrict the repatriation of Sri Lankan migrant workers from overseas.

Over 50,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers, mainly in the Gulf countries, are anxiously waiting to return home amid job losses, coronavirus risks and pay cuts due to the pandemic.

About 1.7 million Sri Lankans work overseas. The majority are women employed as domestic workers and caregivers. Over 200,000 workers leave the country for employment every year.

A total of 5,485 migrants from 20 countries were repatriated as of May 25. Some 157 Sri Lankans who returned from overseas have tested positive for the coronavirus, including 90 returnees from Kuwait, 20 from Dubai and a few from Indonesia.

The government halted a repatriation flight from Qatar due to arrive on May 25 after it was found that 70 of the 466 migrants who were brought back from Kuwait on May 19 were infected with Covid-19.

Ravinatha Aryasinha, secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, requested that migrant workers make an objective assessment of their circumstances before requesting to return to the country.

"In consultation with Minister of Foreign Relations Dinesh Gunawardena, I have instructed Sri Lanka’s acting ambassador in Qatar, as an interim measure, to immediately find accommodation for those stranded, following the cancellation of the Sri Lankan Airlines flight from Qatar, which was scheduled on May 25," said Aryasinha.

Director General of Health Services Dr. Anil Jasinghe said it is a challenge to keep the number of patients below 400 due to the volume of people who are hospitalized continuously.

There are only 500 beds in intensive care units in Sri Lanka. Of these, about 400 beds can be allocated for those infected with the coronavirus, but by now more than 400 people have been infected.

A. Sunethra, who is with 10 Sri Lankan maids in Kuwait, said the government needs to get them home as soon as possible before they become sick.

"Hundreds of helpless women in Kuwait are screaming at the Sri Lankan government to save them. Half of the people who came to the country are badly affected by Covid-19,” she said.

"Each country has returned foreign workers to their homelands, but the government of Sri Lanka did not do so. One person has already died."

The 10th death from coronavirus in Sri Lanka was reported on May 25. The deceased was a 52-year-old woman who arrived from Kuwait. Health officials confirmed that she was a cardiac patient and died of Covid-19 at a quarantine center.

Rights activist Anton Sameera said tens of thousands of Sri Lankans living in fear of the coronavirus epidemic in several countries, particularly the Middle East, have made such requests for nearly two months.

"The epidemic is rapidly spreading in the Middle East," said Sameera.

The Sri Lankan government is formulating a new mechanism to repatriate migrants who face difficulties in the wake of the pandemic. The system will be finalized at a meeting on May 27.

Chinthaka said they are all in great danger by remaining in the Middle East.

"In the house next door, the Sri Lankan house maid is a Covid-19 patient and this situation is very risky. Our rented room is already unsafe and our families are all scared. Please get us back to Sri Lanka soon," he pleaded.


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