By Niranjala Ariyawansha Thousands of Sri Lankans have fallen prey to job-related scams over the years, with the latest being ‘jobs’ as mercenaries in the Russia-Ukraine war. State Minister of Defence Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon believes that a foreign country has been active as an “illegal job hub” in sending Sri Lankans as mercenaries. He told [...]


Fleeing bankrupt Lankan homes, overseas job-seekers opt to die in fight for their lives


By Niranjala Ariyawansha

Thousands of Sri Lankans have fallen prey to job-related scams over the years, with the latest being ‘jobs’ as mercenaries in the Russia-Ukraine war.

State Minister of Defence Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon believes that a foreign country has been active as an “illegal job hub” in sending Sri Lankans as mercenaries.

He told the Sunday Times that he could not name that country for the time being. “Nevertheless, the racketeers have been identified,’’ he said. “This is an illegal racket. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has taken into custody a few racketeers. With the arrests, this illegal racket has come to a halt. The CID has begun a full investigation.’’

The Ukraine-Russia frontline: Lankan soldiers are recruited by both sides

At least five Sri Lankans have died in combat. One of them was Andrew Raneesh Hewage, who left the Sri Lankan army in 2012 after serving as a lieutenant. He was killed while fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war last December.

This week, Al-Jazeera reported that Sri Lankan Nipuna Silva, who was fighting for Russia, had died recently in a drone attack by Ukraine. According to Al-Jazeera, five Sri Lankans have died in the last few months.

The network reported: “Hundreds of Sri Lankans are now serving with the Russian military in Ukraine, most lured into combat by Russia’s offer of salaries up to US$3,000 (more than 900,000 Sri Lankan rupees) a month and the prospect of Russian citizenship, several Sri Lankans living in Russia told Al Jazeera.”

Mr. Tennekoon said no one had been sent to fight in the Russia-Ukraine war with the Sri Lankan government’s approval. “Going in this manner is illegal. However, no diplomatic problems will arise with these countries because of this. The reason is they have gone as individuals,” he said.

Army Media Spokesman Major General K.A.N. Rasika Kumara said no serving soldier had gone to fight in the Russia-Ukraine war as a mercenary.

“However, we do not receive reports as to whether retired army personnel and deserters have gone to fight. It has been reported that the two Sri Lankans who died in the Russia-Ukraine war had previously worked in Singapore and Dubai.”

Policy advocate and Colombo University’s Sri Palee Campus head, Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa, said: “If a country recruits soldiers for its war, it has to be done through an embassy and a conditional service agreement. Then both parties have a responsibility and can be held accountable. Now, neither exists. Will compensation be paid on behalf of those who died? Is there insurance? There is nothing. It is a very serious problem.

“A group of our fellow citizens has gone to fight in a brutal war. They have chosen death, which is a litmus test of how severe Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is.’’

Amid the economic bankruptcy, the Sri Lankan government has encouraged people to seek jobs overseas. These workers contribute forex to the economy.

The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) said that youth in particular are motivated to leave, even illegally, for better pay. Most use a tourist visa.

It was a few months ago that reports were published about a group of about 60 Sri Lankans who were being detained at a cyber slave camp in Myanmar, having left on visit visas for jobs in the computer technology field.

They are being held by a terrorist group as cyberslaves, and the Sri Lankan government is trying to get them released, the SLBFE said.

It is the bureau that has the authority to send Sri Lankans legally for overseas jobs. A person should have a job visa issued by that particular country, and he or she is also required to register with the bureau. For jobs in nursing and domestic helper service, the bureau provides brief resident training.

However, considering the economic crisis and the need to refer a large number of people abroad for jobs, Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara has allowed agencies to train, and this has opened the way for scams, a top SLBFE official said.

“Due to these relaxed policies, an opportunity has opened up for agencies that have not renewed their registration or those involved in illegal tasks to engage in various rackets using visit visas,” he said.

The minister was not available for comment.

Nevertheless, when recruits register at the SLBFE, the validity of the job visa, the safety of the relevant job, its dangers, being paid a reasonable wage, etc. are confirmed by the SLBFE.

“According to government policy, we do not send anyone for jobs in any country at war. Sri Lankan soldiers are sent via embassies as United Nations peacekeeping forces based on international rules and regulations. The SLBFE has not sent any soldiers to the Russia-Ukraine war,” a top official who wished to remain anonymous told the Sunday Times.

He said that mercenaries for the Russia-Ukraine war and Sri Lankans who accepted computer technology jobs in Myanmar had gone illegally.

Leaving for jobs overseas takes place in two ways:

* Legally, with job visas, through local and foreign employment agencies, or with the intervention of the government

* Leaving the country using tourist or visitor visas.

“During the past few years, with the economic crisis in the country, a large number of young people began leaving for overseas jobs. Those with legal job visas, with our intervention and another group, left the country on tourist visas and then found jobs. Some others find jobs through relatives or friends living overseas and leave the country with a visit visa,” he said.

Racketeers exploit those who leave the country with visit visas, and the responsibility lies with the government in case of adverse outcomes.

Those leaving on visit visas do not register at the SLBFE. “So, how can we be responsible?’’ the bureau official asked.

“Many who leave for a job at any level with job visas register at the SLBFE.’’ This allows the bureau to record details of jobs, places of employment, addresses overseas and in Sri Lanka, and so on.

He said the bureau does not have a legal right to violate the right to travel, which is a fundamental right. There is no way to prevent the exit of those who get visit visas to go in search of jobs.

What the SLBFE can do is raise awareness, he said. He advised Sri Lankans to register with the bureau before departure. A fee has to be paid.

To prevent Sri Lankans from leaving with visit visas and then ending up in risky situations, the SLBFE, together with the Criminal Investigation Department, set up a counter at the airport in Katunayake last year.

“What we do is question suspicious people. It has to be done with extreme care. The reason is that any person can travel to any country in the world using a tourist visa. We cannot intervene in that. When we question them, some individuals come out with the truth: that they are going abroad for a job. If they possess relevant documents for obtaining a job abroad, we will definitely, stop them,” the official said.

In 2022, 1,047 people were suspected and returned, while in 2023, checks helped detect 1,855.

In 2022, 99 people were referred for investigation by the CID and police, while 233 were referred in 2023.

According to the SLBFE, to prevent human trafficking, which falls into the third most serious crime category among the highest categories of crime, based on the Panama Accord, the bureau operates a Counter Human Trafficking Unit. The law is implemented through this, with CID support, by filtering complaints received regarding jobs abroad.

It is the responsibility of the government to assist Sri Lankans who face unexpected problems overseas, the officials said.

At least one Sri Lankan died every day overseas in 2022

Hundreds of Sri Lankan migrant workers pay with their lives every year to keep their home fires burning while remitting billions in foreign exchange to keep their heavily indebted country afloat.

At least one Sri Lankan migrant worker died overseas every day in 2022, reported data show.

There were 389 natural deaths, 30 deaths by suicide, three murders, 36 deaths in road traffic accidents, 29 other accidents, and 20 attributed to the coronavirus disease.

Such data reported to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment do not in any way reflect the actual tragedies that Sri Lankan migrant workers face. Many deaths go unreported.

Some who have died are undocumented workers, and their last rites are often done by close friends who raise funds or by migrant worker groups. If not, the remains are handled by host governments.

Some deaths are controversial and even suspicious, such as the death of a helpless young woman, Wishma Sandamali, 33, who died in immigration detention in Japan in 2021.

Despite pleas by the family, prosecutors in Nagoya did not charge officials at the immigration centre.

Sandamali died at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Aichi Prefecture in March 2021. In July 2023, the media reported footage (a short clip) being shown at a hearing of a lawsuit filed by the family, where she was seen seemingly in pain on a bed and gradually fading away. In April of that year, some footage was released, and it was from two weeks before her death, showing her pleading repeatedly for hospital care. But her pleas had been denied.

Reports said she had been detained for seven months for overstaying her student visa and then asking for refugee status.

Wishma’s body was not brought home. She was cremated in Nagoya.

In 2022, most deaths of Sri Lankans, or 146, were reported from Saudi Arabia. Among them were 107 Sri Lankan men and 39 women. The next highest tally of deaths, or 108, was from Kuwait. Among them were 53 men and 55 women. In the United Arab Emirates, 60 Sri Lankans ended up dead—39 men and 21 women. Six men and three women have died in Japan.

In Israel, eight died—four men and four women. One death was reported in China.—KB

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