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Sri Lanka

Voting rights of Sri Lankan migrant workers 'not a priority'

With 1.7 million migrant workers, such numbers could affect future election outcomes

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Voting rights of Sri Lankan migrant workers 'not a priority'

A file image of Sri Lankan government officers with police security bringing ballot boxes to a polling station on election day in 2013. ( photo)

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Sri Lankan migrant workers and their supporters are lobbying the government to implement laws that will allow them to vote from overseas, something that those in power appear reluctant to do.

In April 2016, the Sri Lankan parliament appointed a committee to formulate ways to allow the 1.7 million Sri Lankans working overseas to have their say during  elections.

The parliamentary committee has yet to submit their report and there is no indication when it will be ready.

The committee's slow progress has upset many who want to vote for representatives able to protect the rights and welfare of migrants.

Ramani Nilanka, a domestic worker in the Middle East for the past 20 years, said not being able to vote made her feel like a foreigner.

"People like me have a dream of being able to vote while working overseas, at least before we die," said Nilanka.

Before the year ends, the country has several elections for provincial councils and local governments.



People queue to cast their votes on an election day in Sri Lanka's north in this file photo. ( photo)


Father Nandana Manatunga, director of the Human Rights Office in Kandy, said most of the migrant workers are abroad because of the country's political instability or to escape economic hardship.

"The special parliamentary committee should come up with proposals and allow migrant workers to make their suggestion," said Father Manatunga who has done election monitoring in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.

"The government should give priority to the issue," said the priest who was also the former director of Caritas Kandy.

"If migrant workers could vote it can change the whole final election results since their number is very high," he said.

Sujith Perera, convener of Rata Giya Aththo, a Sri Lankan migrant workers' rights organization, said migrant workers are also unhappy that the government has ignored past recommendations by political leaders and the Human Rights Commission Action Plan 2011-2016 that recommended the government grant migrant workers voting rights.

"None of the ruling governments — including the present one — have so far taken any interest in giving migrant workers their fundamental rights," said Perera, a past migrant worker himself.

Assistant Election Commissioner Samantha Jayasinghe said the election commission cannot do anything about the issue until the country's lawmakers create a legal frame work.

"We are waiting for the report of the parliamentary committee to amend the existing election laws," said Jayasinghe.


A Sri Lankan man on his way to polling station with his national identity card to cast his vote on an election day in this file photo. ( photo)


However, another officer of the election commission, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the government is in a dilemma about providing voting rights to Sri Lankans overseas as they fear it could lead to election malpractices.

"The system of electronic voting can be misused specially by the Tamil diaspora since their number is very high in Europe," said the source. "A large Tamil diaspora may even influence the final results of any election in future," he said.

Around half a million Tamils left the island nation during its three-decade long civil war that ended in 2009.

According to the Foreign Employment Bureau, most Sri Lankan migrant workers are women employed as domestic workers and caregivers in the Middle East. The country's central bank estimated the amount of remittances sent home by Sri Lankans working abroad in 2016 was about US$7.2 billion.

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