Dignity – which forms the basis of the notion of fundamental human rights – is certainly a scarce and luxurious commodity, if, queuing up at Lankan diplomatic missions overseas, waiting to collect their meagre breakfast and lunch in the form of packets of food, relying on the kindness of strangers and their milk of human kindness for their dinner, sneaking into small shops and dingy gas stations to attend to nature calls and keep up a semblance of personal physical hygiene, and having to sleep on the heartlessly hot, humid earth of the grounds of public parks in the playpens of the stinking rich jet-setting leisure class, with the night’s black sky as a blanket, is the fate of Lankans who have migrated to the Gulf in search of greener pastures but have instead have had to face the pestilence of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). This is certainly the case in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In President Gotabaya Rajapaksa‘s vision for a reconstructed Sri Lanka’s future titled ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’, the country’s Migrant Workforce in Foreign Employment has been considered under the Chapter on ‘A Productive Citizen and a Happy Family’ as one that “plays a key role in the economy through their remittances”, which it further notes, accounts for a substantial contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product. It goes on to add that the Government “will pay special attention to migrant workers as well as Sri Lankans domiciled abroad.” But alas, with no prospects, dwindling personal reserves and limited potential owing to being mostly “unskilled”, the migrant workforce, a pillar of the domestic economy, is no longer, playing “a key role in the economy through their remittances”. They have been declared insolvent. Liquidation looms. The only remittance that remains as one that they can put up as collateral is their fragile and woe begotten, plagued by suffering, human frames. In short, the asset has now become a burden. Despite being hemmed in by the restrictions imposed on permanent final solutions such as genocidal termination, a solution has to be found to this thorn – the stranded migrant worker community seeking repatriation – that will not morph into a bird in the hand. Enter the pitiless eugenics of Sri Lanka’s so called homegrown foreign policy, from which nonalignment, migrant workers have been made unaligned and now uncoupled.
Meena Sathi, a United Kingdom trained academic (gender, poverty and development) who is presently domiciled in Dubai and is currently occupied as an activist cum volunteer assisting the migrant worker community stranded there, said that literally over hundreds of such persons including well over 100 Sri Lankan men and women, with various visa statuses (visit, work and resident, with persons who fall within the definition of the latter two categories also losing their jobs in the wake of COVID-19), have been mired in and experiencing such depravation and degradation for weeks on end, while languishing at a few public parks near the Lankan Consulate such as that in Jafiliya which has no toilets let alone the bare essentials of basic sanitation and health care facilities, and no sleeping mattresses made available for its non-arboreal inhabitants. In the backdrop of the ever present societal fear of COVID-19, she noted that, when they go to relieve themselves at toilets in small shops and gas stations, they are scolded for being potential carriers of the said plague. As far as food and drink is concerned, while the Consulate supplies food packets for breakfast and lunch, those stranded claim that they do not receive their dinner from the Consulate despite the Consulate stating otherwise. Dinner is generally provided by charitable volunteer groups and organizations, she added. Further, those stranded have to make their way to the Consulate to obtain the said meals, she further noted. To add to this misery, there is no proper accommodation for them, and the public parks, she noted, despite a proscription on females being allowed to stay out in the open overnight, have been their home away from home for some time. Sathi however noted that the Dubai Police were quite helpful and constantly requested those stranded to seek assistance from their relevant countries foreign diplomatic missions.
The apathetic and lackadaisical attitude of the Consulate officials with regard to repatriation requests too came under fire from Sathi who claimed that while she had sent a list containing the names of a group of 32 stranded Lankans to be noted down in the list maintained by the Consulate of persons seeking repatriation, to a female officer at the Consulate via Whatsapp on 6 October, her phone had shown a notification that it was only on 9 October that the said message had been viewed by the officer in question.
“The Consul General is nowhere to be seen and no officer is coming out of the Consulate premises and talking to the people. I had to raise the volume of voice in order to get some attention (Sathi has visited the Consulate on several occasions, the latest being on 9 October). They question as to who we are and why we are intervening in this regard and maintain that they would seek our assistance if required. What is implied is that we should not interfere to help. They are not running any repatriation flights. They claim that they don’t have funds from the Sri Lankan Government and that the borders are closed and that they don’t have sufficient facilities to accommodate them for the quarantine. Millionaires don’t need these flights. They should prioritize those stuck on the street without money, jobs, a plane ticket and hope of going back to Sri Lanka. Their plight is being ignored. Is it alright for them to die here?” Sathi queried from the relevant Lankan authorities.
The Consulate General was not available for comment.