By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka
With nearly 2 million of its citizens working abroad and their remittances providing the island’s largest single source of foreign exchange, the protection of Sri Lankan migrants is an urgent issue, according to the U.N..
Abuse of workers abroad and reports about the mistreatment of migrants captured by Australian authorities at sea mean there is a spotlight on the Sri Lankan government’s new “action plan” for dealing with returning and reintegrating migrants.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants, Francois Crepeau, told Anadolu Agency that Sri Lanka needs to take specific measures to better protect people on the move; from labourers in dour conditions abroad to Sri Lankans who flee the country in desperation.
Crepeau said there are serious concerns about the physical and work safety issues faced by Sri Lankan migrant workers, the socio-economic conditions that drive, in particular, ethnic minority Tamils to risk treacherous sea journeys and the island’s response to migrants.
“Issues of safety, abuse, exploitation and harassment continue to plague Sri Lankan migrant workers. As a country reliant on export of labour, authorities should urgently address them,” he said.
Money sent home by migrant workers provides income for nearly a third of Sri Lanka’s population while also remaining the island’s main source of foreign exchange, with remittances of more than $6 billion sent to Sri Lanka in 2013.
Crepau highlighted that Sri Lanka needs to examine more closely the deaths of workers abroad.
In 2013 there were 298 migrant worker deaths, an increase of almost 4 percent from 2012. The value of insurance paid to the families of victims totalled totalled only 130,515,977 Sri Lanka rupees ($1 million).
“There had been reports of mutilated bodies being returned to Sri Lanka, at times, with missing organs. Autopsies are not performed in Sri Lanka and the families are often not allowed to see these bodies,” noted Crepau.
The vast majority of Sri Lankans working abroad are women employed as domestic workers in Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The trend has however reversed since 2012 because of several local policy decisions.
Since January 2014, Sri Lanka has been insisting on a family background report from women and does not recommend those with children under five years of age for migrant work, which Crepeau, in a report to the government, described as a “discriminatory practice” which denies women opportunities.
“Women migrants often work in private households, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Domestic work is excluded from most of the labour laws in many countries, including in Sri Lanka,” said Crepau.
“Sri Lanka should extend labour protection to domestic workers, ratify the relevant ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers and learn from good practices like those in other countries,” he said.
The plight of domestic workers was illustrated most graphically by the beheading of Rizana Nafeek, an under-aged and untrained domestic worker from eastern Sri Lanka, who allegedly smothered an infant to death but claimed that the baby choked while feeding on a milk bottle.
Protecting Sri Lankans abroad is no easy task. In the past, there had been recorded instances of serious rights violations including torture, abuse, assault and even sexual assaults, in addition to exploitative labor practices such as the substitution of contracts to reduce wage and alter job descriptions.
The island’s labor-regulating agency, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment acknowledges that despite measures to ensure safe migration many of these issues persist.
“We are trying to further reduce these concerns. We hope to enter bilateral agreements with labor-receiving countries to ensure workers’ rights better,” said Indrani Pathinayake, a training and recruitment manager at the labor agency.
Sri Lanka only has a single such agreement at present, with Saudia Arabia, which guarantees the internationally-accepted rights often denied to domestic workers. Crepeau promotes the negotiation and effetive implementation of similar agreements with other states, in line with international human rights instruments.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has begun strengthening its own legal framework. The Sri Lankan government has made training compulsory for all migrant workers and for the domestic sector, where the employees are 95 percent female, there is a set standard for vocational skills and language competency.
A National Policy on Reintegration of Migrant Returnees and a National Acton Plan are expected to be introduced soon, to address the socio-economic and psychological reintegration of migrant returnees.
A major cause of migration has been the slow post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka’s north and east, after decades of civil war ended in 2009.
There has been a sharp increase in ethnic Tamils fleeing the island by boat, mostly to Australia, because of racial discrimination, a dearth of employment opportunities and a sense of hopelessness among young Tamil men in particular.
“Information is now available, indicating that Tamils experience a particular need to migrate, often without documents, due to poor employment opportunities in Sri Lanka and discrimination,” said Crepau. “The Sri Lankan government should take effective measures to ensure equal work opportunities for all Sri Lankans, making migration a choice, not a necessity.”
Some of those who have travelled to Australia have found themselves handed back to the Sri Lankan navy and, on their return, treated as criminals.
“Some Sri Lankans try to migrate irregularly to Australia on boats, often facilitated by smugglers. Attempting to migrate irregularly is a criminal offence in Sri Lanka. I urge the Government to decriminalize irregular migration as it should only be considered an administrative offence,” said Crepau.
Concerns about migrants are not limited to Sri Lanka, especially in South Asia where Nepal, India and Bangladesh have all called for greater protection of their citizens working abroad.
The issue was brought up at a meeting of South Asian leaders in November 2014 in Nepal, where they agreed to collaborate on managing migration and ensuring the safety, security and well-being of migrant workers.