REMITTANCES are Sri Lanka’s largest foreign exchange revenue but sadly there is a high cost to be paid. Eight Sri Lankans committed suicide, 89 were killed in accidents and 318 died of natural deaths while working overseas last year, according to a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) report submitted to Parliament last week.
The majority of the 415 deaths took place in Saudi Arabia. Some 87 Sri Lankan workers died there while 48 died in Kuwait and 30 in Qatar, the report says. The high number of accident related deaths in some of these countries is reason for grave concern as they will result in a high number of deaths in the future as well.
Moreover even the natural deaths could have been precipitated by low nutrition, access to healthcare and long working hours – a common phenomenon among migrant workers.
It is difficult to compare numbers with last year since they were not reported but it is clear that the Government needs to look beyond the numerals to the people that are deeply affected by hard working conditions in these and other countries.
Pointing out that the next of kin of a Sri Lankan worker who dies in a foreign country is entitled to receive compensation, salary dues, gratuity and insurance payments, the report claims that the Ministry last year collected about Rs. 180 million in compensation from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon and the Republic of Korea.
However, when this amount is divided by the 415 Sri Lankan’s that died it is clear that many received paltry compensation of barely a few hundred thousand. Therefore, the compensation paid for these people is wholly inadequate to sustain the families that they were once responsible for.
The report also says the Ministry has taken continuous efforts to secure the release of Sri Lankans detained in foreign countries, some of whom are on death row. In the case of Rizana Nafeek, the Ministry is persisting with efforts to obtain a pardon from the parents of the infant who died while being under the care of the housemaid, in coordination with our embassy in Riyadh and other relevant authorities, the report says.
The MEA also arranged the repatriation of 41 Sri Lankan workers stranded in Iraq. They had gone to Iraq for employment illegally and the Ministry intervened to recover their salary arrears, the report adds.
It also notes that a large number of employers and agencies in Middle Eastern countries are not willing to repatriate employees before the completion of their contract period, unless they pay about Rs. 200,000 – the money the employers are said to have paid the agents. Such bottlenecks in the system mean that victims suffer for long periods of time before they are allowed to return home.
Opposition parties have long criticised the MEA for not having their embassies provide adequate assistance for the migrant workers that contact them for help. In many instances authorities both here and abroad fail to act swiftly and decisively.
In addition last year, the Consular Affairs Division of the MEA also facilitated the repatriation of 176 Sri Lankan fishermen many of whom were detained by the Indian authorities along with 29 fishing vessels.
Insuring these people is a positive step but it is clear that they need better assistance and recognition for the sacrifices they make. After all they are the true heroes of Sri Lanka.