Tensions in West Asia appeared to have eased on Thursday, but the issue was still alive in the Sri Lankan space with the trio sitting down under the margosa tree reading newspapers on the crisis. “Batahira asiyave, ape daruvanta mokak vevida (What will happen to our children in West Asia)?” asked Kussi Amma Sera. That [...]

Business Times

Hostilities in West Asia


Tensions in West Asia appeared to have eased on Thursday, but the issue was still alive in the Sri Lankan space with the trio sitting down under the margosa tree reading newspapers on the crisis.

Batahira asiyave, ape daruvanta mokak vevida (What will happen to our children in West Asia)?” asked Kussi Amma Sera.

That led to another question from Mabel Rasthiyadu who asked: “Prashnayak ethi-vunoth, egollanwa ivath karanna anduwata salasmak thiyena-wada (Does the government have a plan to evacuate them)?”

Gataluva vanne ape kamkaruvo balaganna rajayata avashyada kiyala (The problem is how concerned the government is about our workers),” said Serapina.

Mama hithanne na apita nisi salasmak thiyenawa kiyala (I don’t think we have a proper evacuation plan),” replied Kussi Amma Sera.

The crisis this week was precipitated by a US drone-strike killing a key Iranian military commander. Iran retaliated by firing missiles at US targets in Baghdad and warned Gulf States of dire consequences if their territories became launch-pads for strikes on Tehran. Dubai would be the first city targeted, it was stated.

SriLankan Airlines joined many other international airlines in avoiding flying over Iran and Iraq, forced to taking a circuitous route.

Sitting at my computer, drinking the morning tea which was brought earlier by Kussi Amma Sera, I reflected on the West Asian crisis while hearing snatches of the conversation by the trio. It was a warm and sunny morning with expectations of a hot afternoon (has anyone wondered why it is so hot in January with the noon-day sun beating down like in March to May, the hottest months of the year?). Climate change I presume.

Anyway as I ventured to write about the West Asian crisis, the phone rang. It was long-time-no-see ‘Shifty’ Silva, the always-inquisitive IT expert, on the line.

“Hi Shifty, what’s bothering you,” I asked in a pleasant tone.

“Hi… hi, I was wondering about the West Asian crisis. Do you think it would escalate?” he asked.

“I don’t think so. For that matter, I hope not, otherwise Sri Lankans working in West Asia would be at grave risk,” I replied with concern.

“I hope so too. We are not geared for any mass evacuation of our nationals. For that matter we don’t have any kind of contingency plan if tensions escalate,” he said.

Sri Lanka’s economy relies a lot on West Asian economies  with tea exports to Iran and other regional countries being the country’s biggest buyers while oil from West Asia is another economic factor.

However, the safety and well-being of over a million Sri Lankan workers in the Persian Gulf states, is our primary and biggest concern. There has never been an evacuation plan (to execute in a crisis), and knowing Sri Lankan authorities, there never will be given how slow officials move in a crisis of this nature. No contingency plan, no mass evacuation plan. For that matter, are our missions in West Asia geared to looking after the welfare of Sri Lankans in case the region plunges into a full-scale war? Such plans were found wanting whenever a crisis blew up in that region, the US-Iraq conflict was an example.

As expected, the Philippines moved swiftly to announce measures to evacuate close to 7,000 Filipinos working and living in Iraq; more than 1,000 in Iran; and a total of more than 2 million working across West Asia. President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered the armed forces to prepare air and naval assets for the evacuation of Filipinos in Iraq, Iran and nearby Arab countries, it was announced.

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah was reported to have advised Malaysians to defer non-essential travel to the region, “in particular areas where the security situation is critical”, and for citizens in the region to register with their nearest foreign mission.

Here this week, there was no announcement by Sri Lankan authorities on the safety and well-being of Sri Lankans working in West Asia, not even an advisory to avoid ‘non-essential’ travel to the region. Also has there been any statement from the authorities this week on the evolving West Asia crisis vis-à-vis our workers? None!

More than US$7 billion in remittances was sent by Sri Lankans working abroad last year, higher than foreign exchange earnings from apparel exports, tourism and agriculture (including tea) exports.

Sri Lanka’s economy depends on foreign remittances  but the focus and the recognition those who send these remittances deserve are not there, apart from a cursory statement in Parliament during the budget debate when the minister in charge of foreign employments holds ‘forth’ on how important migrant workers from Sri Lanka are and their contribution to the economy.

The problem is that most of these Sri Lankans are low skilled workers and their blood, sweat and tears do not get the recognition they deserve as key contributors to the economy. They are subject to abuse and harassment, they don’t have proper working hours and their employment contracts are manipulated by recruitment agents. Apart from a couple of civil society organisations that work with government authorities to ensure better working standards and contracts of employment, they have no one to turn to for relief during a crisis. Shelters at Sri Lankan embassies in West Asia are overcrowded with workers who have had problems in their workplaces (often in homes) and wait for a resolution, often non-payment of their dues or repatriation to Sri Lanka.

Again, I state with responsibility, the silence of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) and the ministry handling foreign employment is unbecoming for institutions tasked with looking after the interests of Sri Lankan workers abroad. Sri Lanka has as many workers as the Philippines in West Asia, but Manila is streets ahead of Colombo in looking after the interests of their nationals, in all aspects, with experienced and capable diplomats posted to those countries to ensure proper working conditions and proper employment contracts for Filipinos.

The Sri Lankan authorities will never learn even if a full scale war erupts in the Persian Gulf and any reaction to a crisis is always a knee-jerk reaction. How many husbands, wives, mothers, fathers and children would be worried sick about their loved ones working in the Persian Gulf after the crisis blew up? How many would have tried to seek clarification from Sri Lankan authorities here about the safety of their family members or relatives? Was an emergency desk set up at the SLBFE to handle inquiries from relatives? So many questions with no answers!

Nearly half a century after the oil boom in West Asia triggered large scale, initially low-skilled, employment opportunities for Sri Lankans and others, Sri Lanka is still flailing around for a proper structure and process of labour migration in the midst of abuse and harassment at workplaces and insecure employment contracts. Bilateral agreements or MOUs with labour receiving countries are of no value apart from the paper they are signed on.

As I ended my conversation with ‘Shifty’ – shuttling between discussing the issues with him and my own reflections — my second cup of tea came into the room courtesy Kussi Amma Sera.

Batahira asiyave ape daruvan gena mama duk venawa (I am sorry for our children in West Asia),” she said with worry lines on her face.

Mamath duk venawa (I am also sad),” I said with equal concern, wondering when Sri Lanka will come up with a policy on migration that would deal with all these issues with the same concern, anxiety and responsibility that spouses and parents of our workers have. (PS: Better late than never! Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, late on Thursday, told reporters that they were taking all precautions to protect our workers in Iran).

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