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Sri Lanka bringing home migrant workers, students who want to repatriate

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is looking to repatriate citizens currently overseas by prioritizing them in an objective way, a senior official said.

This week attention will shift from bringing home students to migrant workers, he said.

The Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Relations Ravinatha Aryasinha said that repatriation would take place by “looking at the real necessity of their repatriation at this point and our capacity to bring them and quarantine them, so that they are not a danger to those in the country and they don’t unnecessarily expose themselves to danger on the way in to the country.”

He said that the government had earlier focused on Sri Lankan students overseas who wished to come home, but now the focus has shifted to migrant workers mainly in the Middle-East.

Bringing Sri Lankans home is an emotional issue with parents of students overseas clamoring for their children to be brought home as the COVID 19 pandemic situation seemed much more alarming in the Western developed countries where these students were rather than in Sri Lanka.

Studying overseas is expensive and almost all of the parents concerned are wealthy and well-connected and Sri Lankan media has been replete with tales of the government giving preferential treatment to “VIP” kids.

Aryasinha sought to quash these reports by saying the repatriation will be prioritized “by not looking at faces or connections.”

The well-heeled can pay to quarantine at resort hotels

Repatriation has been hampered by several factors, airline capacities, funds and the ability to quarantine them on arrival.

Several five-star resorts, idling because of the lack of tourists, have been turned into posh quarantine centres where inmates pay a smidgen below pre-COVID 19 market price for a luxury stay.

Most of the well-heeled returning students have been billeted in these places.

Others who cannot afford these places are sent to Military-run Quarantine Centres where facilities are more Spartan, but comfortable and safe by all accounts.

Space in these centres will be crucial for the next phase in the operation.

Aryasinha said in remarks to State Television that migrant workers have to be brought back particularly if they are in a vulnerable situation.

He pointed to around 1,500 Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Maldivian capital island of Male as the “most vulnerable.”

Kuwait is a special place with different considerations

“Then in places like Kuwait, in addition to that vulnerability for COVID which is common to the rest of the Middle East, there is also an amnesty declared by the Kuwaiti government and we are conscious that there is anxiety on the part of foreign employees that if they lose this amnesty they will have greater difficulty coming out and returning as legals someday,” he said.

He said that the “Kuwaiti government at this point has offered to fly them back to Sri Lanka.”

Aryasinha said that the Kuwaiti government understands that Sri Lanka cannot bring all of the workers, estimated to be around 16,000, back at the same time and added that Colombo and Kuwait are currently negotiating terms over the repatriation.

“Then there is also the problem of Sri Lankan expatriates working in places like Bangladesh, again where COVID is spreading at a very rapid pace and there are more than a thousand people there, out of which about 300 plus are women and children,” he said.

He said that Lanka’s missions overseas are intervening to help these workers.

Jobs are hard to come by in Sri Lanka as well

Aryasinha said that “there is also a category of about 3000 people out there who are there on short term visits and stuck, they don’t have that choice, they have to come back home, and we are trying to draw them also into the present movements, to the extent possible, probably with the hotels being used for quarantine, which are also now getting filled up.”

“Somebody who is in a job whether in the Middle East or any country, blue-collar or white-collar, at this point when you come back, you might not be able to return to that job because those countries are also cutting back and everybody is scaling down, and so is the case in Sri Lanka,” he said.

“But if you don’t have a job already, then I can see the logic, but I think it is important that people out there understand that when you come back to Sri Lanka too, finding jobs won’t be easy,” Aryasinha warned. (Colombo, May 8, 2020)