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Sri Lankan migrant workers stranded in Kuwait anxious to return home

.ECONOMYNEXT – Jayanthi, not her real name, a 48-year-old mother of two from Kandy, is one of many Sri Lankan migrant workers currently stranded in the Middle East amid the COVID-19 pandemic, desperately looking to return home.

The Middle East is the most popular destination for migrant workers from Sri Lanka. Of all the countries in the region, Kuwait remains a favourite among Sri Lankans due to the value of its currency, the Kuwaiti Dinar, which is considered the most valuable currency in the world.

Since the arrival of the novel coronavirus, Kuwait has reported a total of 33,140 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 273 deaths and 22,162 recoveries.

The story of Jayanthi starts way back in May 2018 when she first set foot in Kuwait to find employment as a domestic worker. During her first six months in the country, she had to face numerous difficulties at the private residence she worked at, as the patriarch of the household would constantly attempt to sexually harass her.

When she complained to his wife about her husband’s behaviour, her reply to Jayanthi was to simply “consider him as your own brother”.

When she could not bear it any longer, Jayanthi called the foreign employment agency that had sent her to Kuwait. Agency staff had picked her up, and moved her to a new household where she worked until March at which point she wanted to return home as her mother had taken seriously ill.

The woman at Jayanthi’s new workplace refused to release her passport, telling her that they would send her home through the intervention of the police and the embassy. However, when she went to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Kuwait and conveyed to the officials her intention to leave Kuwait, the officials to her that they couldn’t accept her without a valid passport.

She then went to the agency, where she was allowed to stay as she did not have any money with her. Later she had found out that although the house she was working at had given the agency Kuwaiti dinar 220 as her monthly salary, the agency had only paid her 140.

Speaking to EconomyNext, Jayanthi recounted how she, along with several other migrant workers now temporarily sheltered at the agency, and are struggling to find food.

“Our breakfast is just one cup of tea, and for lunch, we are given packed rice and curry at 4 in the afternoon, and then at about 12.30 – 1 am we get a roti for dinner,” she said.

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Every time there is a visitor at the agency premises, all of them are forced to hide.

“I don’t mind the discomfort. This pain, I can bear somehow. I just want to go back to Sri Lanka. That’s my only wish,” said Jayanthi.

“I’m too scared to go out because of the virus. I do not want to die in this country. I want at least my body to be buried in Sri Lanka,” she added.

Sri Lanka receives up to USD 7 billion in remittances from migrant workers, especially those working in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Vimukthi aged 30 from Gampaha is one of a group of 10 men who had gone to work in a chocolate factory in Kuwait on February 7.

Vimukthi and his group say they were deceived from the very beginning when their Sri Lankan agent sent them to Kuwait with a three-month visit visa instead of a work permit.

It was 15 days after their arrival in Kuwait, when their employer refused to give them work because they did not have their Kuwaiti-government issued Baladiya health certificate on them that they realised they had been issued the wrong visa.

Their employer gave them one month’s salary and threatened to send them to detention camps.

When Vimukthi and his group called the embassy for help, officials they evaded the issue, he charged.

“We registered at the embassy, but we’re still waiting to go back to Sri Lanka. The embassy is not telling us anything. When we asked for our passports from our employer, they stopped giving us food. We can survive with just water, but we need to go back home somehow. We’re new to Kuwait, so we don’t really understand the law here,” Vimukthi told EconomyNext.

Vimukthi had raised money to pay his Sri Lankan agent to get a job in Kuwait by mortgaging his house at a private mortgage company. That company is already demanding instalments with interest from his parents.

In a truly harrowing account, Ajith Kumara from Balangoda is in a desperate search for his older sister 45-year old Thamara Pathmini who had last contacted him on May 21 from the ICU bed at the Farwaniya Hospital in Kuwait.

Pathmini had gone to Kuwait in 2015 to work as a housemaid, but according to her brother had escaped her employer who had allegedly given her an unbearable amount of work for little pay.

She had then started working in another house where she contracted an illness a year ago due to a stomach issue.

Her new employer, Kumara claimed, had not provided her with any medical attention for a whole year had dragged her out of the house and put her on the street when the Kuwaiti government announced an amnesty period in April for migrant workers who are staying illegally in Kuwait.

Later when the Sri Lankan embassy in Kuwait allegedly refused to help, Pathmini had rented a place to stay in, but was subsequently admitted to the Farwaniya Hospital on the evening of May 14.

“Her condition got more critical every day. I was told that she later became unconscious and after coming round again had started talking to herself. My sister spoke to us for the last time on May 21 evening saying that she was about to be operated on as her condition had gotten worse. By midnight her phone was switched off and since then we haven’t heard anything from her or about her,” Ajith told EconomyNext.

Ajith has been trying hard to find any information about his sister. He has spoken to the Kuwaiti embassy in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan embassy in Kuwait and also made a complaint to the Foreign Employment Bureau office in Rathnapura, but he has yet to hear back from any of them.

The only information Kumara was able to find was that Pathmini was admitted to the hospital by a taxi driver named Suresh in Farwaniya, but Suresh’s whereabouts or contacts are unknown.

Pathmini has two young children back home who are still in school.

“They cry every day asking for their mother,” said Kumara.

As Sri Lanka eases its lockdown measures, the government has halted the repatriation of migrant workers stranded in the Middle East and elsewhere. Of those who have already been brought back,  548 have tested positive for COVID-19 as of June 7. A majority of these cases happen are Kuwait.

The controversy surrounding the repatriation of migrant workers from the Middle East, especially from Kuwait, took a turn for the dramatic when Former Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage told the privately-owned Derana TV last month that the Kuwaiti government had selected “people who were COVID-19 positive and sent them here aboard their flights.”

“They have struck us with a bomb. They have sent their COVID-19 patients here,” Aluthgamage said.

Responding to Aluthgamage’s remarks, former opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) MP Sunil Handunneththi said that migrant workers 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.

Speaking for Ethera Api, an association of Sri Lankan migrant workers, Handunneththi called for a clarification from the government 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.

Meanwhile, EconomyNext learned from Sandamini, a 24-year-old student from the University of Peradeniya in Kandy who is also stuck in Kuwait, that local news services had reported that four Sri Lankans infected with the coronavirus have been admitted to hospital. The patients were in a detention camp where the other workers who had returned to Sri Lanka last month had been kept.

Sandamini, who went to Kuwait to visit her mother during university vacation, had her return ticket dated March 15 and wants to return to Sri Lanka before the universities open up again.

“The embassy only noted down my name and the passport number,” she said.

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, which expired last month.

Minister of Foreign Relations Dinesh Gunawardena affirmed in May that the repatriation of migrant workers from the Middle East as well as other regions will continue in a manner sensitive to the vulnerability of these communities, particularly those who have lost legal status and/or employment in their host countries.

Earlier last week President Gotabaya Rajapakse assured avenues for everyone who wishes to return to Sri Lanka.

The president also directed airport authorities to accommodate all returnees in an isolated location while providing them required facilities until their PCR test results are released.

President Rajapaksa also directed authorities to explore the possibility of conducting PCR tests overseas with the Sri Lanka government’s intervention or with the assistance of the host government.

“Early identification of coronavirus positives would help to direct them to hospitals and quarantine centres soon,” he said.

According to the latest updates, as at May 27, 42,522 persons from 123 countries were looking to return to Sri Lanka. This number includes 34,881 migrant workers of whom 20,893 are living in the Middle East, while 4,961 are short term visa holders, and 2,016 are students. (Colombo/June10/2020)

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