Bring them back now!
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the utter desperation of humanity as it emptied streets, crashed economies and took the lives of the most vulnerable among us. In 2020, a stampede killed several people as they clambered for some money offered by a philanthropist and there is the ongoing funeral rite debacle causing friction between communities.
However, the most terrible circumstances befell thousands of Sri Lankan migrant workers trapped abroad, mostly in the Middle East. Many in the country were shocked to see video after video and account after account posted on social Media by Sri Lankans abroad documenting their misery as the whole world went into lockdown, leaving them destitute in foreign lands seemingly ignored by their own Government. They are huddled in parks and under flyover bridges, exposed to the elements relying on some strangers’ charity. And in one Gulf country, a group of Sri Lankans protesting their plight were treated with baton blows and tear gas of the riot police, adding to the tears they have already shed from shame, helplessness and thoughts for their loved ones back home.
But as this was all happening in the Middle East, the authorities were flying home the children of the moneyed few on a series of charter flights. The delightful, privileged kids said their lines in choreographed TV segments and everybody said ‘praised be our leaders’. As the months of 2020 rolled by, polls were held, amendments were passed, pots were tossed into rivers and “potions” were developed but no serious, concrete steps were taken to bring back our countrymen (and women) abroad with their hard earned money intact. So, the caveat was that the workers can get a ticket and fly here anytime they please, but had to shell out so much cash on PCR tests and quarantining in star hotels. The hard working, hard struggling Sri Lankans hoping to invest in their families’ future couldn’t possibly afford to bear the cost of those procedures let alone maintain them due to job loss in the host nation struggling with the pandemic.
Meanwhile, former MP, Sunil Handunnetti said the Government should take immediate action to bring back 68,000 Sri Lankans in foreign countries, who were suffering due to increasing unemployment and lack of other essential needs due to the spread of COVID-19, without further delay. He said the Government should set up a special fund to support migrants to buy air tickets, take PCR tests and to help them with the quarantine process. Even though the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) is open, it is only for tourists and not for helpless Sri Lankan migrants, he added.
“Initially the Government did not work to bring them back due to the fear of COVID-19. However, amidst the second wave of the pandemic, with the intention of restarting the tourism sector, a group of Ukrainian tourists were brought in by the Government. Also, they were allowed to visit certain areas which may cause further spread of the virus. For instance, a group of safari jeep drivers who had taken the tourists to the Yala National Park were sent to quarantine centres. There were reports on social Media that these tourists were not following proper health guidelines such as wearing facemasks,” Handunnetti also said.
In a glimmer of hope, Government MP Minister Namal Rajapaksa insisted recently the need to implement a programme to facilitate the return of Sri Lankan migrant workers through concessionary airfare. He acknowledged the expensive quarantine process in hotels and that they were unreasonable. Rajapaksa also said that existing spaces in Government facilities should be improved to accommodate returning expats.
The fact is that this problem should have been solved a long time ago, probably in the middle of last year when there was enough State resources to be dispensed while COVID-19 cases were very low. However, the process should not delay any longer and cause more suffering to Sri Lankans suffering abroad or let the whole situation careen into unknown territory and cause a major scandal internationally.
Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa instructed officials to direct all returning Sri Lankans to State-sponsored Quarantine Centres (QCs).
His instructions to officers were not to force any Sri Lankan to undergo the said programme at star-class hotels and to only do so with their consent or direct them to Government QCs.
The President has conveyed these instructions to officers following a meeting with Minister Namal Rajapaksa and State Ministers, Shehan Semasinghe, Thenuka Vidanagamage, Kanchana Wijesekara, Roshan Ranasinghe and Indika Anuruddha at the Presidential Secretariat on 5 January.
During the meeting Minister Namal Rajapaksa had opined that if a system could be initiated for returning Sri Lankans to be quarantined in their homes, it would be beneficial to them.