10 December, 2023


Migrant Workers Can Be Repatriated, Sri Lankan Govt. Has Abandoned Them At Their Hour Of Greatest Need

By Mimi Alphonsus

Mimi Alphonsus

To the migrant worker stuck abroad sleeping in parks, eating one meal a day and having just lost a job, the resurgence of COVID-19 in Minuwangoda sparks fear. For them, the new cases signal even further delays in returning home. We worry about being locked-down at home. For migrant workers, that is a luxury. 

Of the 1.7 million Sri Lankans abroad, 50, 000 migrant workers stuck primarily in the Middle East are trying to come home. Despite the arduous process and small chance of success they have applied for repatriation. Many more will likely follow suit as the situation continues to get worse. Most of these migrant workers have lost their jobs. They don’t have healthcare or proper food. 64 migrant workers have died of COVID-19 and over 2600 have been infected. Migrant workers have a COVID fatality rate six times higher than Sri Lankans at home (2.4% as opposed to the 0.38%). They are far more at risk than any of us.

Delays in Repatriation

In their hour of greatest need, we abandoned them. Sri Lanka halted repatriation flights in July and restricted them to one flight per day in September. I do not need to delve into the horrors of being stuck abroad penniless and helpless. Multiple videos and articles have covered that subject. Instead I will show how we can and must continue repatriation. Now that another cluster has emerged in Minuwangoda it may seem like the intuitive thing to abandon migrant workers yet again. In reality, this COVID-19 cluster provides an opportunity to bring them home.

In the orange box I breakdown our capacity in the months prior to the Minuwangoda cluster. I show that we chose not to repatriate more migrant workers even when we could have. The government said we did not have enough quarantine capacity and the risk of infection was too high. I hope that exposing this argument as a lie will make the reader critically question the government when they use similar excuses to halt repatriation now with the Minuwangoda cluster. In summary, we functioned at far less than a 50% capacity for months when we could have instead sped up the repatriation process. To read more on the situation post-Minuwangoda and what can be done, simply skip the box.

The Chief Epidemiologist, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, confirmed that in and around May we had extended COVID-19 care to 10-15 hospitals. By September COVID-19 patients were only treated in three. This is a gross, active underuse of our capacity when thousands of our citizens were sick abroad without proper shelter, let alone a hospital.

The Minuwangoda cluster is a harsh reminder that we cannot return to normal so soon. There is massive community spread and more than 1300 active cases. It is important in such a time to resist panic and instead think rationally about repatriation. The government decided to restrict repatriation flights allegedly due to the lack of capacity at quarantine centers and hospitals. This is wrong for three reasons. 

First and foremost, the Minuwangoda cluster has shut down schools and universities. This provides ample opportunity to expand our quarantine facilities. Many times, in the first few months of COVID-19, I went past Royal College and the University of Colombo thinking of how their hostel capacity sat empty and useless. And that’s not to mention their giant non-hostel infrastructure. If only we converted a few well-chosen universities and schools into quarantine centers we could increase our capacity by thousands. This is exactly what states across India are doing. In Kerala they even converted unoccupied houses and government rest houses into quarantine centers. Here’s a very basic breakdown of just two campus hostels.

But let’s assume that our quarantine capacity is low because of staff, not infrastructure. Many governments sent out urgent calls for volunteers when COVID-19 hit. In Ireland 17, 000 people signed up to volunteer. In Sri Lanka a conservative estimate would bring the number to at least a few thousand. Even if inexperienced volunteers cannot manage a quarantine center, they can still do other jobs to relieve health staff and transfer them to centers. But the government has still not called for volunteers.  

Say this proposition is unrealistic. Still we can sufficiently increase numbers because running a quarantine center does not require thousands of staff. Our COVID-19 control has relied unfortunately almost entirely on our armed forces. Surely, we can tap some more into our 280, 000 armed forces who at the moment have very little to do defense-wise. 

Second, few migrant workers at a time are actually infected with COVID-19 upon return. Typically, there are less than ten infected repatriates per flight of roughly 500 people. A handful of infections per day is a relatively minor addition to our health system when compared with the hundred that are emerging out of community spread. This is a practical argument leaving aside the fact that an infected migrant worker has as much of a right to be in a Sri Lankan hospital as does anyone infected by the Minuwangoda cluster. Moreover, it is likely that our hospitals will soon be over-capacitated. This will mean that young and otherwise healthy COVID-19 patients may be asked to recover at home or at makeshift clinics while the seriously ill be treated in hospitals. If as a result of the Minuwangoda cluster hospitals are over-capacitated anyway then the logic of stopping repatriation because of a lack of hospital beds makes no sense. In fact, when hospital capacity is limited it is vital that seriously ill migrant workers, whose fatality rates at the moment are far higher than those of us at home, be allowed to recover in hospitals while patients already in Sri Lanka who are at lesser risk of death wear the disease out elsewhere. Sri Lanka has to bring back migrant workers at some point and it doesn’t look like COVID-19 is going away any time soon. Repatriates are less likely to spread the disease amongst themselves when in regulated quarantine than in cramped detention centers abroad, packed like sardines. Bringing them back sooner will avoid perpetually over-capacitated hospitals down the line. 

Finally, it is important to bust the myth of the foreign infector. Repatriates do not create community spread. They are quarantined on arrival. So, the fear that repatriates are “bringing the disease”, especially now when the disease is already rampant, is unfounded. When there is community spread going to the shop is riskier than bringing back migrant workers. Unless a second island-wide lockdown is imposed, halting or stalling repatriation in the name of reducing risk is a disingenuously unnecessary move.

According to Asrticle 14 of the constitution all Sri Lankans have the absolute right to return to their country. If there isn’t enough quarantine space, as the government is claiming now, they need to fix it. Instead of viewing the Minuwangoda cluster as the perfect excuse to block repatriation again, the government must seize the opportunity it presents for bringing home our migrant workers. 

.*Mimi Alphonsus is a student of history and a writer. Her thesis is on upcountry Tamil migrations to Northern Sri Lanka.

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Latest comments

  • 7

    This alone would work as the biggest curse on RAJAPAKSHES sooner than later. Those stranded people have no anywhere to go after they lost their jobs.

    There are whole lot of reports how those poor people are brought and thrown on to desert areas after they were driven away from their domestic house holds.

    Needless to say how these poor guest workers have to face in Middle east countries even COVID crisis started.

    • 2

      How many people have died from Covid 19 in Sri Lanka? Far less than dengu but the whole economy is shut down because there is no contextual analysis for policy making in Rajapaksa-land!
      Covid is milder than seasonal flu in Sri Lanka, the Covid-19 HOAX media show and narrative is meant to shut down global trade and transport systems and stop brown and black migrants from the global south to US and EU and attack Asian economies. That is why it is now attacking the export sector to further crash and debt trap the Lankan economy before Pompeo visits for get MCC signed. Brandix was set up with orders from the US.
      The Euro-American Evil empire is crashing under a mountain of trillions of Debt and hence they have unleashed a Hybrid Cold War on China’s BRI and Asian economies. Euro-American debt is far worse that third world debt as the Empire crashes.
      The US-Euro hybrid Cold War on BRICS and emerging economies also entails Weaponization of Religions and ethnic and religious identity politics – Buddhism and Islam – to de-stablize Asia and particularly Russian and Chinese borders.

    • 1

      The Indians are believed to have no toilets, but they didn’t abandon their citizens. SL boasts of 2500 years of culture but lets it’s citizens die in the Gulf. Which is more important, having toilets or having pants?

  • 9

    “Minuwangoda cluster as the perfect excuse to block repatriation “
    Minuwangoda cluster is the making of some government official taking bribe to let Brandix workers from India in to Colombo.

    Minuwangoda cluster is also a cover up for the break out of Covid nationally.


    There is no leadership from the President or the Prime Minster on COVID

    both the Prez and PM think they can shove Army Generals and IGPs in front of the TV and hide behind them.

    They are up to their usual ricks….the media is all about arresting Rishad and how wonderful China is to give them further $500m

    How long are they going to carry on bull shitting the people.

  • 15

    Sri Lanka is a very compassionate and generous country. It allowed an American to return and become the president of the country. It should not hesitate now to bring back its own citizens when they’re crying out for help. Pleading for their very survival. These are our sons, daughters, mothers and fathers who make invaluable contribution to our families and our economy through their hard work under harsh conditions, taking grave risks. If we don’t help them in their hour of need, we are a failed state and a pathetic nation indeed.

    • 1

      Compassionate ?

      We need to define “COMPASSIONATE ” suitably to SRILANKA.

      The Chinese and Indians if they are close to Rajapakshe CRIMINAL gangs, are allowed to come and go whenever they think is right. Mothers and fathers sometimes brothers and sisters work in MIDDLE east as cheap laborers, even if they have real reasons to return home, are neglected by their embassies.

      No matter if they would have been COVID carriers, Rajaskhes would not care much about the infections being spread to that garment factory whose workers are from almost every provinces of the country – these people make every effort to earn their living by rsiking in COVID crisis period.

      Over 60 or more indian workers/heads keep visiting SRILANKA, the information is held hidden yet, if they were subjected to PROPERLY held quarantininig steps.

      In America THERE WAS A COMMON PLACARD lately, it was about BLACK LIFE MATTERS.
      Now it is high time, we srilankens to pass it to SRILANKENS as ” SRILANKENS LIFE MATTER”. Due to unexplainable fears, PEOPLE are set to PASSIVE modes. Rajapakshes would do sucking the last blood drop of the own people… wait and see…

      Not only Rajaakshes should be kept well healthy continuing their PCRs almost on a regular manner, but abusing the funds belong to tax payers.

  • 8

    No no no these poor starving people s needs are not urgent due to the following facts.
    What the country desperately needs is a new constitution not the well being of the citizens.
    The country is an undisputed leader in the colony of beggars does not have the resources to bring back the hapless stranded no use at all to the government as at the way in which the nation is turning into no democracy and free election s will ever be held.
    Even last month KAbal cabral proudly floats that the inward remittance s from the migrant workers have brought in the largest amount in foreign exchange those stranded destitute s have no hope in hell to get a gratis trip back home.
    The rajapukas have conveniently forgotten that these one time Mogul s contributed financially in dollars and their next of kin back in the colony voted wholesale to give them the much needed 2/3rd majority.

  • 6

    Even after hypothetically stating that the government by begging borrowing and stealing from China or other good great souls bring back all the desperate now penniless once upon a time monied citizens being in the colony of the beggars how on earth can they provide care and monetary assistance to these in need folks.
    Now with the lord’s gift of the second or third stage of the controlled coronavirus those affected are expected to hit the tens of thousands or maybe the hundred s of thousands.
    Only God knows what the outcome will be
    No money Kota uda sad sorry Lanka is in a fix a turmoil that can only be fixed if the rajapukas dip into their amudes/panties and use the hora boru Salli that they have illegally grafted over the years will all these man made difficulties and obstacle’s be overcome to the satisfaction of all those affected/afflicted with the dreaded cursed China s gift to the world.
    Most of those who are Kota uda now are their own kith and kin the poor in penniless
    sinhalese themselves.
    One must remember ?? never to be born poor.
    Only ones pet dog will be caring faithful in good along with any bad times.
    Quite true.

  • 7

    Rajapaksas are only interested in taking their money. Such parasites.

  • 4

    Thank you for reminding us of our obligations that our government all too conveniently forgets.

  • 8

    Most of these migrant workers have lost their jobs. They don’t have healthcare or proper food.

    What will happen in future Due to lack of facilities exposure to the virus and possible lack of social protection make them vulnerable? Repatriates do not create community spread. They are quarantined on arrival they should make or fix space. How long they will be in the same state.

  • 12

    In a brave new world where human rights are dirty words foisted on a victorious Sinhala Buddhist nation by NGO paid unpatriotic Western boot-lickers there should not be any mention of the rights of Sri Lankans who toil in the Mid East to remit hard currencies that buy the parasitic political and industrial class luxury cars and equipment to maintain a luxurious lifestyle. Its a case of “I’m alright Jack” all the way..

  • 1

    Dear Mimi

    Thank you for sharing the content and is very informative explained the plight of our people be it this exposes the destitute status/venerability of our citizens who serve other Nations. A pandemic like this are a good times to evlaute the humanity part of other Nations and how they take care of those who take care of them.

    Therefore I do not accept your argument that our GOSL failed but we as humanity failed to take care of the fellow man. May be we should ask our Muslim brother in to take this matter with the respective Countries as fellow Muslims demanding explanation on behalf of fellow men and women will be a better diplomacy too.

    Our GOSL has done well to date and we should not undermine our own GOSL at will as we have done for 70 years has resulted in a situation why we have so many fellow citizens who has to leave our beautiful Nation to be in a place to serve a bunch of cowards who can not take care of them respectfully until we have spaces for quarantine…they could even go the extra mile and offer to assist our GOSL in facilitating such facilities too???

  • 1

    Can we ask each and every individual MP’s from North to South and East to West to complete a check list/capability list for such tasks of managing pandamic within their own constituency???

    They knowledge of capability/short falls and identify gaps for now and for future managemnt of matters………..if you spoke to my Father as an MP he knows each and every house, who lives there, schools, labs, hospitals, wards, nurses, doctors, pots and holes in each lane and roads and the entire work structure/status…….is fully mapped as to what need to be don and how to go about getting things done……..now we have a generation of politicians and political parties who makes a living out of fighting for causes never Hurd about but not for basic human needs……..we have normalised this so much not a single MP never has to report a singly actions list/progress/milestones/their work load every day/surgery attendance of the masses…………all we do is write abuse and insult on new papers and hope ll our problems will go away.

    • 5

      Thiagarajah Venugopal “..if you spoke to my Father as an MP he knows each and every……. pots and holes in each lane and roads “
      so he never repaired them ?
      pocketed the money instead?

      • 3

        Not only he pocketed the money. He turn coat and joined the government, even though he was elected under ACTC. The voters in Vaddukodai electorate voted for ACTC candiadte. What did he do after winning joined the governmet and with the money the got send venugopal to UK for education. That is the man we are talking about. Now what is venugopal doing , he took to drugs and is crying to be accepted by SLPP as a member, But people knowing the treacherous family record said nothing doing. So the poor man is writing garbage in support of the government.

      • 0

        Thank you Rajash

        This is what I said out to do about the exposure of the “Ratha Pottu Mafia FP/ITAK/TULF/TNA Killing Fields 1970-1977-1981 in Jaffna a Tamil crime against Tamil” once we have this recorded I think your analysys will change..sorry and the wikipedia about my Father as an example too needs to be sorted so we can really liberate people and their future


        and please make reference to the references to the articles confirms your sources specially Sachi Sri Kantha. There are plenty more Ampuli mama story tellers has profited from the same……..

        I am not sure if you are one of those killers/just a party supporter/raped and robbed as a child by these FP monsters in Jaffna or their Tamil Nadu training camp instructors/or just an innocent man or a woman who happened to believe in certain things………………..based on all the bad things that ensued thereafter.

        I lovingly confirm to you that based on what you have written here “likely” you are not informed and & working with misinformation I can not help…….but committing further crime of Defaming and Slander itself you can only do faceless in the social media????

        • 0

          I am glade CT allow this openly…all that has been written here by you, NV, GS, Umberto….and few others.
          it is also possible you are all the same and foreign too.. Indian/Malaysian/Singaporean Tamil Mafia spinning my Country??? all the more your writings makes me happier that you are all exposing your true credentials out in the public domaine atlas….serve the purpose for me TQ. Keep up the good work.

          However if you know who killed our people in a democracy should be put on trial period. There is no cause is exempted from this crime. Please go to the nearest police station (wherever you live in the world) and give your details and ask them to communicate this to the SL Security apparatus and they know how to communicate with me and take matters further……..please also give details of your sources of what has been said here in CT too.

          CT please pass on these details of the respective commentators to the Police for the investigation of the killings/defamation/slander.

  • 5

    SL government have been receiving their remittances in hard currency and it’s the moral duty to go there are rescue them.

    • 2

      Don’t talk about morality to this government, it is a non existence word in their dictionary.

  • 6

    Excellent article by Ms Alphonsus. She has not only made legitimate criticicisms but also shown viable solutions. Indeed, why not use empty campuses as quarantine centres instead of the dilapidated buildings that garment workers are being herded into?
    It is pretty clear that planning is done by the military, who don’t have the skills or vision. They are just as limited as the ex-military President.
    The Middle East workers should be brought home pronto. Other countries have not treated their poor expats so disgracefully. Even the Indians, who have no toilets according to popular belief, have sent planes and ships. Is having toilets more important than having pants?

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