Sri Lankan migrant workers face agonizing wait to return home amid pandemic

By Aanya Wipulasena

Colombo, July 23 (efe-epa).- Tharindu Ravisha, who had been working at a resort in Dubai, has now been stranded in the United Arab Emirates for four months, waiting endlessly to return home in Sri Lanka.

The 22-year-old housekeeper at Cove Rotana Resort in Ras Al Khaimah has repeatedly contacted the Sri Lankan embassy in Dubai seeking repatriation.

He has exhausted almost all his savings to survive during the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“They told me that my name was in the list of registers (migrant workers) who will be repatriated. But we don’t know when that day will come,” Ravisha told EFE over the phone.

Shaveen Randika Perera, 24, who worked with Ravisha, also faces the same predicament.

“We want the government to allow us to return to our homes. We were (just) living in a room for the past four months. We can’t do this anymore,” Perera told EFE.

Perera has left his bar attendant job because the hotel closed and had hoped to return home before international airports in Sri Lanka closed in March. He does not have resources to sustain himself on foreign soil.

Tens of thousands of anxious Sri Lankan migrant workers, mostly in the Gulf countries – who have either lost their jobs or forced to take salary cuts – have been pleading to the authorities for help.

The workers, who are hailed as an important pillar of the Sri Lankan economy for bringing in billions of dollars in remittances, are feeling left in the lurch.

Remittances sent by workers from abroad provide one of the largest foreign exchange revenue sources, amounting to around $7 billion annually. Tourism, one of the mainstays of the country’s economy, brings in about $4 billion.

According to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), 39 migrant workers have succumbed to Covid-19 so far. Nearly half of them were in Saudi Arabia.

Bureau officials said about 40,000 migrant workers had registered for repatriation in special flights organized by national carrier SriLankan Airlines.

However, the authorities had brought back only about 10,000 until July 14 when the government suddenly suspended the repatriation program.

The government ostensibly discontinued the program because of the lack of space at quarantine centers after health authorities reported a new Covid-19 hotspot at a drug rehabilitation center.

Authorities said people returning from abroad have to be necessarily quarantined and fresh cases from the new cluster and their contacts had already crowded the quarantine centers.

The island nation has recorded 2,700 coronavirus infections and 11 deaths so far.

About 650 patients are active and most of them have been linked to the rehab center, which has sparked warnings of a second wave of the outbreak.

RKKMP Randeniya, deputy general manager of SLBFE, said the repatriation process would be resumed soon, without committing to a specific date.

“We can’t say when we will recommence the process (of repatriation). But it is being expedited,” Randeniya told EFE.

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