Taking toll

Tuesday, 28 December 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The end of a year is a time to take stock and evaluate the final outcome of our actions during the past 12 months and plan for the future. This usually motivates us to form new year resolutions and pledge to become better people, not only for our sake but to make the world a brighter place as well.

The approaching New Year is also a time for journalists to take stock of tragic events that took place during the preceding 12 months and present the statistics to emphasise on what needs to be done to assist the victims and prevent an escalation of the crisis. Over the weekend one such report would have caught the eye of many – the fact that a total of 460 migrant worker deaths were reported in 2010.

As many as 29 Sri Lankans apparently committed suicide abroad this year. The data by the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry’s Consular Division in Colombo noted that between 1 January and 23 December, a total of 460 Sri Lankan deaths were reported to the Foreign Ministry from 41 countries. Close to 70 per cent of the deaths were due to natural causes followed by accidents, suicides and murders.

According to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Employment Bureau, 333 Sri Lankans died overseas in 2009; an increase of 4.8 per cent in comparison to the toll in 2008. Officials from the Research Unit of the Bureau said that 14 Sri Lankans including seven women had reportedly committed suicide abroad in 2009. This year, according to the Consular Division officials, five suicides were reported from Kuwait and three from Saudi Arabia. Other countries that reported two cases each included Lebanon, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and India.

It is clear that these workers have adjustment issues compounded by harsh treatment, working conditions and culture shock that would promote mental stress. With no one to turn to, they usually become depressed and take their own lives – A stark and distressing fact given the number of people they are supporting not to mention the assistance that they are giving to the economy through Rs. 3.9 billion in remittances.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Jordon were the highest labour receiving countries last year, taking 86 per cent of the Sri Lankan work force. Also this year, nine Sri Lankans living abroad were allegedly murdered. Four cases had been reported from Italy, two from Saudi Arabia and one each from Malaysia, Qatar and Pakistan.

More than 100 deaths due to accidents were also reported this year. Road accidents killed most in this category. The highest number of 36 deaths due to accidents was in Saudi Arabia, where more than one million Sri Lankans work.

An estimated 1.7 million Sri Lankans work abroad; their remittances comprise 47.3 per cent of this country’s total foreign exchange earnings. Given the country’s dependence on these people, it is impossible to consider reducing the number of migrant workers in the short term. However, that does not mean that proper support services cannot be provided through the embassies and officials that are based in these countries. Helping workers to acclimatise to their new surroundings and monitoring their wellbeing would go a long way to reducing the number of deaths. 

At the moment these assistance programmes are nonexistent, resulting in needless deaths. It is hoped that the new year will bring better mechanisms by inspiring more compassion.