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Handunneththi claims repatriated Sri Lankans did not depart Kuwait as COVID-19 patients

ECONOMYNEXT – The migrant workers recently repatriated to Sri Lanka from Kuwait were subject to medical tests at the Kuwait international airport and did not board the flights back home as COVID-19 patients, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-backed Ethera Api organisation claimed today.

Speaking for Ethera Api, former JVP MP Sunil Handunneththi called for a clarification from the government of Sri Lanka whether the returnees who have reportedly tested positive for the disease contracted it before departing to Sri Lanka, on the flight itself or upon arrival in the country.

Handunnetthi was highly critical of a controversial statement attributed to former state minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage that accused the Kuwait government of selectively and deliberately sending COVID-19 infected Sri Lankans. Aluthgamage had also referred to the returning workers as a bomb, leading to widespread criticism.

Pointing to an earlier request Ethera Api had made from the Ministry of Foreign Relations to repatriate Sri Lankans stranded in Kuwait, Handuneththi said by April 21, 466 Sri Lankans had registered with the Sri Lanka embassy in Kuwait to be repatriated to the island.

“At the time, a total of 1,995 COVID-19 patients had been identified in Kuwait. Not many Sri Lankans there had caught it by then. If two flights had been sent and brought the workers back, it would’ve been a group of healthy Sri Lankans that returned home,” he said, adding that infected or not, all Sri Lankans stranded abroad must be accepted and welcomed as citizens of the country.

“By May 19, the day they were brought back, Kuwait’s total number of cases had increased to 16,784. The flight with the Sri Lankans took off only after it had spread that far,” said the ex MP.

The Kuwaiti government had earlier declared a period of amnesty for over 19,000 workers who lost their employment as the pandemic spread across the country. Sri Lanka and Kuwait were in discussions in late April to extend the amnesty.

According to Handunneththi, it was embassy officials and not Kuwaiti authorities that had selected the Sri Lankan workers that were to be repatriated. The ambassador had personally overseen the process, he claimed.

“Until the Sri Lankans boarded the flight, embassy officials were at the airport. As far as we know, they boarded only after being subject to relevant medical tests. They did not get on the plane as COVID-19 patients,” said Handuneththi.

The former MP further accused the government of using the Kuwait returnees as an excuse to not bring back more Sri Lankans stranded abroad. With the upcoming parliamentary elections in mind, the government is eager to paint a picture of no new COVID-19 cases in Sri Lanka when there are in fact new cases reported daily, he said.

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“Wherever in the world they live, it is the government’s responsibility to look after Sri Lankans everywhere, purely on humanitarian grounds,” he added. (Colombo/May29/2020)

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