By Shaahidah Riza
Startling news broke out last week when Saudi Arabian Princess Ameera Al Taweel revealed that the ruling Saudi regime engaged in acts of buying and renting children, especially orphans, from countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Djibouti, Somalia, Nigeria, Romania and Bulgaria.
In her exclusive statement to French newspaper Le Monde, she claimed that slavery in Saudi Arabia has different forms, but it is done in secrecy and permitted only among primary beneficiaries of the princess of the House of Saudi. She had also stated that even Asian domestic workers who seek employment in Saudi Arabia often find themselves in a kind of slave-like situation and that young girls are divided into smaller groups and exploited for immoral acts.
Her comments come in the wake of a colossal corruption purge in Saudi Arabia spearheaded by Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman. Al Taweel’s former husband Al Waleed bin Talal was also arrested on corruption charges.
However, the princess had not thus far volunteered any proof of her statements with regard to young girls and domestic workers being used as sex slaves.
Speaking to Ceylon Today, Deputy General Manager, Legal Investigation Unit of Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), Attorney-at-Law, Keerthi Muthukumarana said that SLBFE is trying to establish contact with Princess Ameera and added that to date, they had not received any complaints pertaining to the accusation made by the princess.
“SLBFE is taking this matter very seriously. This is the first time we got this type of news from Saudi Arabia. Normally there are several restrictions when we recruit persons, especially women, who seek employment in Saudi Arabia. We are very particular about their age. We made a restriction that no women who is under 25 can go to Saudi Arabia for employment purposes following Rizana Nafeek’s case. However, we are not that particular about other Gulf States, with regard to age, as long as they are over the legal age for employment.
We were very shocked to hear the princess’ comments. We have a counter human trafficking unit which is very vigilant. However, no one has made any complaint in this regard. In fact, even after the princess’ revelations no one has yet made any complaints about such abhorrent acts. Unfortunately, this is the first time we are hearing about this. I cannot believe this took place,” he said.
Muthukumarana added that it will be very helpful if the princess can provide some sort of link or assist Sri Lanka to identify the victims and investigate further and added that she was only making observations, and that she has mentioned several other countries as well, along with Sri Lanka.
He went on to opine that these incidents perhaps may have taken place before Rizana Nafeek’s incident in 2013. Nafeek was executed in Saudi Arabia which many believe to be a miscarriage of justice. She was underage when she went to Saudi Arabia for employment on a forged passport that had altered her age to the legal age for employment.
“We are extremely concerned about the young girls. They are not allowed to go there even on visit visa, without subjecting them to rigorous and meticulous screening. However, there are instances where people use their Hajj or Umra pilgrimage visits to find employment. Apart from that, there is no chance of young girls going there on an employment visa.”
He went on the say that that have made it mandatory for all migrant workers to participate in a training programme during which, SLBFE officers pay careful attention to each migrant worker in order to determine whether they are legally eligible and mature to work aboard, especially in Saudi Arabia.
“This is unbelievable. But she is a princess who is socially and politically active. So perhaps there is some credence to what she says. She has to cite some evidence, so that we can establish credible proof about this in order to address the issue,” he elaborated further and added that Sri Lanka has an active link with its missions overseas.
He added “If they receive any complaints we look into the matter. Not only do we look into serious matters pertaining to torture, but issues where migrant workers are not being paid for their services.
The missions send all the information to us. We consult the Counter Human trafficking Unit. Then we inform the consulate and get the local agent and the agent of the destination country involved. If we get information about such a matter, we do our own investigations and also inform the CID in Sri Lanka. We assist them to determine whether there was a case of trafficking or whether there anyone in Sri Lanka who facilitate such crimes. This is a multinational organized crime.”
The Sri Lankan Government has also taken holistic steps to address human trafficking in relation to migrant workers. Last week Minister of Law and Order Sagala Ratnayake emphasized the need for strengthening the country’s legal framework to counter migrant smuggling that is being carried out by ‘a network of wealthy businessmen.’
Addressing the commencement of the second phase of the Project ‘RELAY’ facilitated by Interpol, the Minister said, the absence, or inadequacy, of legislation to address the issue means that smugglers of migrants can continue to operate, with little or no fear of being apprehended. He emphasized that a network operating along the coastal belt of the Western and North-Western Provinces involving ‘wealthy businessmen’ who mobilized their own boats and field agents with defined tasks, to carry out these operations, were behind the racket. “Western Sri Lanka has had a long history of making profits through migration.”
The Minister also noted that the connection between Immigration officials and smugglers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India led to dysfunctional immigration screening, allowing migrants to travel without any trouble despite having incomplete or fraudulent documents.
Ratnayake added that while strengthening Sri Lanka’s defence apparatus and law enforcement system, the government is also working closely with its international partners on finding ways to counter the problem, in a sustainable manner.
In light of the above, Muthukumarana noted that the government will do its best to address concerns raised by the princess. He added that the Foreign Relations Department within SLBFE has also been briefed with regard to the princess’ statements. They liaise directly with other countries in such matters. The department has already informed Saudi Arabia and had requested them to look into the matter and get more information.
He further remarked that conducting investigations is a lengthy procedure, as they have to determine who the victims are and have to identify their families as well. “This cannot be done within 24 hours. It will take a long time. But I must stress that no one had complained that their daughters or sisters were missing in Saudi Arabia.
If we had received even one complaint we can commence investigations. We have an anti human trafficking task force. We can get the task force involved. In the meantime, we are also taking some steps to establish contact with the princess as well, so that we can get some concrete information. We are inviting the public and the media to also get relevant information from the princess if they can, especially about young Sri Lankan girls,” he said.